In conversation with Rishabh Pant: "Rahul Dravid has taught me to focus on the process"
”Can we please talk after my gym session?” India’s budding wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant asks when I call him the first time. His politeness hits you straight away, it’s almost as if he is embarrassed to reschedule an interview that had been planned in advance – a rarity in the age of young Indian cricketers who often feel that the world begins and ends with them.
Pant, 18, is being touted as India’s next one-day wicketkeeping marvel. Like the current genius who dons the glove for India in one-dayers, Pant too comes from one of India’s smaller cities, Haridwar. He came to Delhi in pursuit of his cricketing dreams, and it helped that his sister also lived in the same city.
Humble beginnings and early days
In the initial days, finding a club was difficult, till he read an advertisement on the papers. The advertisement was about the commencement of trials at one of Delhi’s most famous cricket clubs – Sonnet Academy.
Sonnet, established in 1969 by Guru Dronacharya Award worthy, Tarak Sinha is the home to countless promising cricketers from across the country. Surinder Khanna, Anjum Chopra, Aakash Chopra, Ashish Nehra and Shikhar Dhawan are some of the illustrious names to have been nurtured by Sinha. Unlike some of his counterparts, Sinha never received his due recognition. But that never stopped him from recognizing talent. Rishabh Pant is one of Sinha’s finest finds.
“Sonnet is the only club that has trials for taking new students in. I was made to bat against bowlers bowling with tennis balls, and I remember hitting a lot of sixes,” Pant recalls.
Over the years, the nature of the ball being faced has changed, but Pant’s authority and control with the bat hasn’t. People used to take notice of him back then, they still do so now.
In his first-class debut against Bengal in 2015, Pant made his presence felt with an aggressive knock of 57 in the second innings.
“It was a pressure game, as we had lost the first-innings lead and wanted to avoid a collapse. My job was to accelerate the scoring,” he says. Pragyan Ojha and Ashok Dinda, both former India players were part of the Bengal camp, and Pant spared neither of them.
That game, of course, went on to be remembered for the infamous clash between Manoj Tiwary and Gautam Gambhir, taking quite a bit of limelight away from Pant and Sudip Chatterjee’s individual innings.
“It wasn’t that big a deal, the media made too much out of it. No one threatened to beat anyone up, I don’t know why and how things got so heated.”
After that game, Pant got to play for Delhi in whites one more time that season, but he remains confident of being the first choice keeper here on.
The India U-19s, under Dravid
The icing on the cake was, however, when Pant was selected to represent India Under-19s in two separate tri-nation tournaments involving Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and England.
The first of the two was played in India, between the hosts, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Pant smashed his way to an aggregate of 282 runs in that tournament and never seemed like getting out. One of his memorable knocks included a century against Afghanistan where he hit the bowlers all around the park with some noteworthy lofted shots.
In the following tournament, the team travelled to Sri Lanka, and Pant produced a match winning 71 against the English in one of the league games and guided India’s run chase with a 35 in a low scoring finals.
Spending time together for months has helped the Under-19 boys gel together as a family, both on and off the field.
“We recently went for a boot camp,” says Pant. “We indulged in all kinds of high-intensity sports and it was a great experience. Most importantly, we had a lot of fun in each others’ company.”
Asked to name a few match winners in the current squad that is heading to Bangladesh to represent India in the Under-19 World Cup, Rishabh laughs. “Everyone is a match winner here, we are a very balanced unit. Any of us can win the game for the country on any given day.”
But the glue binding this team together is the legendary Rahul Dravid, and Pant thinks highly of his coach. “Rahul sir has helped me bring discipline into my game, he has taught me to focus on the process all the time.”
Thoughts on playing the IPL
A conversation with a talented young Indian cricketer has to involve the Indian Premier League and so it did in this case. “It’s a great platform for youngsters to perform and get noticed. Look at Sarfu (Sarfaraz Khan) and Shreyas Iyer. Both of them have made a name due to the IPL.”
This time of the year, most IPL teams have their talent scouts scourging for talent across different competitions, but Pant doesn’t think too much about who is watching and who isn’t.
“For the longest time I didn’t know who the Under-19 selectors were, I have never thought it to be important. I just play my game.”
So it’s an obvious follow-up – is Rishabh Pant confident of finding a franchise in February’s auctions? “IPL toh ho jayega (IPL will happen for me),” he says with remarkable surety.
Tarak Sinha- the coach
The topic drifts towards the struggles he has had to endure in his cricketing journey and moments that stand out. He instantly speaks of his coach, Tarak Sinha with great regard.
“Tarak sir has been like my parent. He has guided me, protected me and encouraged me, just like my father or mother would. Whatever I am today, is all because of Sonnet and Tarak sir and that is something I am going to cherish always.”
“There have been times that I have lived alone in the city and sir has regularly called me to know whether I have eaten or not, how can I ever forget that,” he adds.
Sinha in fact, had taken the young Pant to Rajasthan in a bid to boost his chances of playing first-class cricket, but Pant’s outsider tag didn’t help his case, and he soon had to return to Delhi.
Many say that Pant will go on to play for India some day like many of the Under-19 stars of the past have, but he refuses to be drawn into that discussion.
“I don’t want to think too far ahead and cloud my thinking. My next assignment is my immediate goal, and I want to focus on that.”
I ask him whether he will be wearing the World Cup winner’s medal when I meet him next in February. “Of course,” is the prompt response.