Indian cricket ace Hardik Pandya can expect boo birds to stalk him

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One expected thrills and spills galore when the Indian Premier League launched its 17th season — and the world’s most lucrative league that attracts the cream of the crop did not fail to deliver.

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While hundreds of thousands packed the stadiums and millions of others took in the action on their television sets, few if any expected to see one of India’s best all-rounders get roundly booed or, for that matter, see the highest-paid player get taken to the cleaners.

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Star all-rounder Hardik Pandya was mercilessly jeered by the 88,000 fans in attendance at the world’s largest cricket facility — the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad that sits 132,000 fans.

Then, there was Australian fast bowler Mitchell Starc, the world’s No. 1 earner, who was clobbered all over the field.

Elsewhere, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, one of the world’s finest wicket-keepers, added drama to the proceedings as he stepped down as captain of defending champion Chennai Super Kings a day before the first ball was bowled. This was obviously an indication that the 42-year-old superstar would be retiring from the game at the end of this season.

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Curious fans were out in force to welcome the return of national team wicket-keeper Rishabh Pant and former India skipper Virat Kohli. Pant was glad to find himself on the field after 14 months following a serious car accident in 2022 that nearly claimed his life.

Although Pant showed glimpses of his form in scoring 18, his Delhi squad finished on the losing side to Punjab Kings.

Also back inside the ropes was Virat Kohli after a two-month paternity break. Kohli skipped the five-Test series versus England, but his hot bat was not missed as India thumped England 4-1.

Kohli proved he has “still got it” in him with a stylish 77 for Royal Challengers Bengaluru as they chased down Punjab Kings’ total of 177 with four balls to spare. He smashed 11 fours and two sixes in his 49-ball blitz and reminded the selectors that he is ready for the Twenty20 World Cup in June.

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Several critics had suggested Kohli was not an automatic choice for the tournament to be played in the West Indies and the United States, but he answered the doubters with this brilliant knock.

Pandya grabbed centre stage a month before the start of the IPL season when he left the high-flying Gujarat Titans to return to Mumbai Indians, a club where he previously played. Pandya led the Titans to the title two years ago and the club reached the final in 2023. So his departure was unexpected and the Gujarat fans are not prepared to forgive him.

Pandya truly believed the fans would be in his corner after he announced at the coin toss: “Feels good to be back. My birthplace is Gujarat, a lot of success came in Gujarat, very grateful to the crowd and this state.”

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The fans roundly booed him throughout the encounter even though they had the satisfaction of seeing Gujarat beat Pandya and Mumbai.

Even the commentators were stunned by the crowd’s reaction. Former England player Kevin Pietersen said it is a rare occurrence in India.

“I have never seen any Indian player getting booed like they are booing Hardik Pandya here in Ahmedabad. This is a rare happening,” he said.

If Pandya is hoping to find some solace at home in the confines of Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, he should think again.

His return to Mumbai has been controversial as some smart blazer or blazers in the organization decided to name Pandya skipper in place of Rohit Sharma, the current India captain.

Sharma has led Mumbai to five IPL crowns in his 10 years with the franchise and is highly popular with the local fans, who have already expressed their disappointment. Pandya can expect a backlash from Mumbai fans as well when the squad plays at home.

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Meanwhile, Australian speed merchant Starc was left red-faced after being given a brutal baptism for Kolkata Knight Riders against Sunrisers Hyderabad.

Riders made Starc the highest-paid cricketer by splashing $2.98 million US for his services minutes after Hyderabad had claimed his Aussie captain Pat Cummins for $2.47 million.

The two fiery fast bowlers faced each other in this clash with Starc’s consolation being that his team won by four runs. With that hefty price tag, the fans expected a lot more, but he was smacked for 53 runs off his four overs with 26 runs coming off a single over.

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