Does Rishabh Pant get unfair scrutiny?
The talk of the post-2019 World Cup era of Indian cricket has been all about one man-Rishabh Pant. There have been few youngsters in the history of the sport in the nation that have come with the hype he has. It was in the 2016 U-19 World Cup in Bangladesh that he caught the eye of the world with his explosive batting style and expectations have only risen with time. He is one of those rare players who the cricketing fraternity is sure will make it big in the game.
He has continued to excel in domestic cricket and the Indian Premier League. Over the last few years, he has time and again played some mind-blowing knocks for his franchise that have wowed one and all. Such is his ability that fans could not wait for him to make the Indian squad.
However, with high expectations come greater scrutiny. Everything he does with the bat or gloves is analyzed closely. Every mistake and failure is met with intense criticism. With him becoming India's first choice in all formats since the World Cup due to MS Dhoni's absence, he has been the center of the focus in the cricket India has played in the time and divided opinion among fans.
Last week, the team dropped a bombshell by dropping him for the first Test against South Africa in Visakhapatnam. Pant was replaced by Wriddhiman Saha, who wore the gloves after Dhoni's retirement from the longer format. While, at the outset, it looks like a case of a senior playing earning his spot back after returning from injury, the question arises, why was this move not taken in the West Indies tour itself then?
Further, did Pant really merit being dropped? After making his debut England last year, the Delhiite has featured in 11 Test matches and scored 754 runs at an impressive average of 44.35. He also managed to score centuries in both England and Australia, making him the only Indian wicket-keeper in history to have two 100+ scores outside the subcontinent. He was India's second-highest run-scorer in the historic series victory against Australia earlier this year. In the time period, he only played only one series in India that was against the West Indies. In both matches, he managed to pile up a 90+ score on the two occasions he got to bat in.
One cannot deny that Saha is much better with the gloves and as Kohli said probably the "best in the world" in that department. Quite visibly, Pant has some work to do with his wicket-keeping skills. However, Saha's batting average in Test cricket is just 30.38 and there is barely a debate about who is better with the willow of the two.
Hence, one is bound to ask whether he performed badly enough to deserve being dropped? Further, if his keeping could be trusted in England and Australia, is there much harm doing it at home? And, ultimately who offers the better package as a player of the two is something to ponder.
Moreover, the debate here is also between a 22-year-old and a 34-year-old. While Saha has been a great servant for Indian cricket and deserves his opportunity, the fact remains the clock is fast winding down on his career. With Pant showing glimpses of brilliance already, it is clear that he is the future. Will there a better way for him to improve than playing games?
Limited overs' cricket
However, the story is slightly different in limited-overs cricket. Over the last few years, there has hardly been a more explosive Indian player in the IPL than Pant and that led to the clamor about seeing him play international cricket in the shorter formats. In the last three editions of the T20 league, his strike rate has been above 160 every year. With 684 runs in 2018 and 488 in 2019, he has been not only been an explosive striker of the ball but also one of the most consistent batsmen in the league.
Unfortunately, that form has not transformed to success at the international level. The 22-year-old has played 20 T20Is and only scored 325 runs at a below-par average of 20.3. Further, he only has four 30+ scores to show in the time. In 11 of the 19 innings he has played, he has been dismissed for a single-digit score. It is worth noting that he has batted at either number three or four in 15 outings meaning he had ample time to consolidate a big score. His international strike rate (121.26) is significantly lower than what he manages to pile up in the IPL.
His record in 50-over cricket paints a similar story. Having played 10 innings in the format, he averages just 22.90 with 229 runs to his name. He is yet to register a single half-century or play a match-winning knock. While he got plenty of starts in the World Cup, Pant was unable to make the most of any of them. He has grown synonymous with throwing his wicket away at crucial junctures. Be it his ill-timed shot in the World Cup semi-final or more recently a very immature dismissal off the first ball in the third ODI against West Indies.
Will the team management back him?
As a result of his form and shot selection, he has become the source of a lot of debate. His position in the team has been questioned and seen criticism from all angles. Last month, head coach Ravi Shastri voiced his frustration in an interview to Star Sports prior to the T20 series against South Africa saying
"When you see a shot like the one in Trinidad, off the first ball, [it's disappointing]. He tries to repeat it a couple of times and gets out, he will be told. There will be a rap on the knuckles there - talent or no talent - because you are letting the team down, forget letting yourself down. You are letting the team down in a situation where you have the captain at the other end. You have a target to chase where the need of the hour is some sensible cricket."
With M.S Dhoni's impending retirement and with only a year left for the T20 World Cup, Virat Kohli would want his next wicket-keeper to settle in and start performing as quickly as possible. Pant has deservedly got the first go at the position but he is yet to justify it in limited-overs cricket. With Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson waiting in the wings along with veteran Dinesh Karthik, the pressure on him is bound to rise in coming times.
However, it's important that Pant is given as much possible time and space to show his mettle. Quite visibly, he is an extraordinary talent and is capable of doing things hardly anyone else can. If he can live up to expectations, India will have a truly unique and special player on their hands. However, his style of play is what can be called a high risk-high reward. When he fails, it is bound to make him really silly.
This is the reason it becomes all the more important that the team management sows patience in him. Under Virat Kohli's captaincy, India have achieved great things but it is fair to say that young players have not been properly backed by the team management.. More often than not, players have been dropped without getting a proper chance. If there is one player who deserves a long run in the team, it is Pant.
A lot of people have compared Pant's batting style to Yuvraj Singh, and the 2011 World Cup man of the tournament spoke about the need and importance of supporting and sticking with Pant in these times in a recent interview to 'NDTV':
“I really don't know what is happening with him Why so much unnecessary criticism? Somebody needs to get the best out of him.How one manages that also depends on his character. You need to understand his character, psychology and work like that and if you are going to suppress that then you can't get the best out of him"
He continued by speaking highly of his talent:
That guy has got two away Test hundreds. He has a lot of potential. He is an outstanding talent. Someone should know how to read him, how to encourage him, point him what he needs to focus. The problem in our country is the moment a guy is not doing well everybody starts criticising him. I would rather talk to him and understand what's happening than attack him."
Yuvraj also reminded people that it takes time to develop a player by stating MS Dhoni's example:
"MS Dhoni was not made in a day. It took a few years so it will take a few years for a replacement also. There is one year to go for the T20 World Cup so that is still a long time,”
Even Gautam Gambhir criticized the team management for their treatment of the youngster in a coloumn for the 'Times of India' by saying
"Personally, I have always backed Sanju Samson ahead of Rishabh for wicketkeeper-batsman's role but it is disappointing to see the team-management using words like 'from fearless to careless', 'rap on Rishbah's knuckles' and 'need for a backup of Rishabh. Everyone wants him to play 'sensible' cricket. I don't know what that means.
I don't know what that means. What I do know is that the boy is now playing for survival rather than scoring runs. From the outside it seems that his mindset is all over the place. Someone needs to put an arm around his shoulder and tell him that he is wanted in the team"
Prior to dropping him for the first test against South Africa, reacting to the criticism of his initial comments, Ravi Shastri said that the team management will "back him to the hilt". Speaking about his belief in Pant, the head-coach told 'Hindustan Times' that
"All your media reports and all the experts writing (but) Pant is in great space with this Indian team. Experts, they have a job, they can speak. Pant is a special kid and he has already done enough. And he is only going to learn. This team management will back him to the hilt."
"Don't say team management, I spoke about 'the rap on the knuckles'. If someone goofs up, I have to pull them up,"
"Am I there only to play tabla? But this guy is world class, this guy can be destructive, can be a destroyer. And we will give him all the support that he needs to prosper in international cricket"
For the sake of Indian cricket, one can hope that Shastri stays true to his word. While the captain and coach speak highly of him, there is widespread belief in Pant in Indian cricket. Be it ex-players, commentators, or fans, the 22-year-old is touted to Indian Cricket's next big things.
He is still a very young player and some inconsistency is just part of the process. It's important that he does not compromise on his natural instincts but is works on improving his decision-making. One can expect that the more experience he gains, the better he gets at it. Pant is simply a talent that Indian cricket cannot afford to waste.
Having said that, the onus falls on the youngster to live up to the expectations. Ultimately, there is competition waiting for him and no Indian cricketer can get unlimited opportunities. It is on the wicket-keeper batsman to correct his mistakes, show he can do it at the international level in limited-overs cricket, and secure his place in the side.
Also see – World Test Championship points table