Hardik Pandya could not have picked a more appropriate product to endorse right now than a backpack with a built-in massager. Images of the all-rounder being stretchered off the field with a back spasm during the Asia Cup last month would have worried Indian cricket fans.

While the 25-year-old is still recovering from an acute lower back injury, he was in his element at a five-star hotel in Mumbai last week during an interaction on the sidelines of the launch of EUME, which claims to be the world’s first built-in massager backpack.

“I endorse products that I would use,” Pandya tells Scroll.in. “I like to use the product before signing an endorsement contract because I don’t want to misdirect people. I used the backpack and found it so comfortable. It’s also such a unique product, so it’s pretty exciting to endorse something like this.”

Pandya is slowly, but steadily, becoming quite popular among Indian brands that are looking to tie up with athletes to promote their products. He may not be Virat Kohli or MS Dhoni in terms of stature and influence, but he’s got something those two demigods of Indian cricket don’t – chutzpah.

The ‘CEO of chutzpah’

Often rated among the most stylish sportspersons in the country – Sports Illustrated put him on its cover last November and picked him as one of India’s most stylish athletes, while The Man called him “the new CEO of chutzpah” – Pandya’s over-the-top personality is rather unique among Indian athletes.

The well-built cricketer from Baroda tries a new hairstyle (and sometimes, colour) almost every series he plays in – he has been called the Paul Pogba of Indian cricket – while his flamboyant and bling-bling fashion style stands out among his peers. His 10.5 million-plus followers across Instagram, Twitter and Facebook is proof enough that India’s social media generation, at least, loves his unique style.

The many looks of Hardik Pandya (Image: AFP/Hardik Pandya on Instagram)

Pandya admits that Western culture has had a big influence on his personality. “I have close friends in the West Indies and such places, so maybe that’s how I got that vibe,” he says. Born in Surat, brought up in Baroda and hailing from a humble background, it may appear to people on the outside that it’s all a show, but Pandya claims he always had that side in him.

“It’s just that earlier I did not have the resources to be a bling-bling guy,” he says, smiling. “Everything comes with time, I feel. From the beginning, I always wanted to be how I am right now, but I don’t think that was the right time for me to be like that. I always feel that one should always be how they want to be. I have seen people change according to social media and I am not someone like that. I prefer having my personality. I prefer being how I want to be, and not how people want to see me.”

Indian brands are soon warming up to personalities such as Pandya. While the all-rounder has not appeared in as many traditional advertisements in print, digital and broadcast media as Kohli or Dhoni, a scroll though his Instagram page will show you quite a few posts that have been published via paid partnerships with brands such as Oppo, Gulf Oil, Sin Denim, DFY Sport and EUME.

“Whether it’s the blonde highlights or the funky hairdo, Hardik has succeeded where, let’s say, a Vinod Kambli had failed years ago,” says Niranjan Kaushik, CEO of SkyNinja India, an advertising agency. “Why has that happened? Because brands today have become far more open-minded to unconventional looks than they were earlier.”

Brands accept unconventional-looking celebrities today because they have to follow their audience, according to Kaushik. “Today’s youth – those with the buying power and buying intention – is sitting on social media. They are on Instagram 24x7. How many minutes in a day do they watch conventional TV or listen to radio? That’s anybody’s guess,” he says.

As of October 2018, India has 71 million Instagram users, according to this Statista report. That’s second only to the United States’s 121 million users. On Facebook, India tops the list, with 294 million users compared to the USA’s 204 million.

Kohli (24.6 million) and Dhoni (11 million) both have more followers on Instagram alone than Pandya does across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. But India’s second tier, so to say, of cricketing superstars, such as Pandya, Rohit Sharma, and Shikhar Dhawan are attracting brands that cannot or do not want to pay top dollar for their partnerships. “Why pay the extra dollar for an A-lister when a very popular guy with a large following does the job at half the price?” says Kaushik.

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Is the moment as precious as the grin? 💎

A post shared by Hardik Pandya (@hardikpandya93) on

With Pandya, especially, who has the most colourful personality outside the top tier, it’s almost like a win-win situation for brands. While Kohli may be the top draw among Indian athletes for brands, a look through his Instagram page will show you that every third post is a plug for one of his endorsements. There isn’t a lot of Virat Kohli, the person, on his social media accounts.

That’s not the case with Hardik Pandya, whose social media accounts are a lot more personal, whether he is playing with his dog, or giving MS Dhoni a haircut, or hanging out with his family and friends. There are the odd brand plugs in between, but Pandya’s Instagram page gives his fans a good idea of the kind of person he is.

Pandya claims he handles his social media accounts himself. “My team has access but I don’t run my posts by them before posting,” he says. “There is nothing in my life that I have to run by anyone.”

Ask him if he is trying to use social media as a means to build his persona and attract brands, he says, “I don’t have a social media strategy as such. It’s just my personality – it’s just how I am. It’s Hardik Pandya’s page so it should be Hardik Pandya only.”