Wriddhiman Saha is arguably the best wicketkeeper in the world but averages 29 with the bat in Tests. In today's game, that is not an acceptable number for a wicketkeeper-batsman, and it's this perception that could have played a role in India choosing Rishabh Pant for the Boxing Day Test.
Meanwhile, Ravindra Jadeja wasn't a man-for-man replacement for Virat Kohli. In your best batsman's absence, strengthening the batting became the priority, thus forcing Rishabh Pant’s entry into the Indian line-up at Melbourne.
All Pant managed was a 29.
As a number, it may not the make the 'brief scores' lists under the towering contributions of the Rahanes and the Jadejas. Still, Rishabh Pant’s breezy stay at the wicket provided the impetus India needed at that juncture of the Test.
Contrary to the perception that staying at the wicket and overtly defensive batting is the way to go in Tests, it's the number of runs the side scores that determine the result. That's what even Kohli meant after the Adelaide defeat when he expressed his disappointment with India's intent.
India seemed to have shut up shop after Shubman Gill's departure. 11 balls later, they lost Cheteshwar Pujara. Ajinkya Rahane and Hanuma Vihari had to rescue the team and did so cautiously. They added 52 before Vihari lost patience and perished trying to sweep Nathan Lyon.
India were still trailing by 79 runs when Rishabh Pant walked in. The last specialist batsman was gone. Pant would be up against the same attack that blew India away in the second innings at Adelaide. The team carried the scars, not Pant.
Rishabh Pant often uses the counterattack approach, which only adds to a fan's anxiety. But this time, he employed an uncomplicated strategy and remained decisive about it. The Australian pacers' lines weren't as probing as they bowled to a left-hander for the first time in the series.
Anything outside the off-stump, Rishabh Pant let it go. Anything full or short, he capitalised and scored from. He didn't care about the bowler's reputation.
Pat Cummins may be the number 1 Test bowler in the world, but he paid once he erred in lengths. The 52nd over of the innings saw Pant plundering 12 off Cummins. The first two balls were full, and Pant launched a straight drive and extra cover drive that fetched him two each.
Not used to such treatment, Cummins hurled one short. Pant perhaps expected it. Not committed to the front foot, he stayed back and pulled it in front of square for a boundary. Cummins reverted to a full ball across, hoping for an edge but Pant was happy to leave it alone.
Cummins almost caught Pant undecisive off the fourth ball and committed to a drive, away from the body, not middling it. However, he had enough control to have it through the gully for another boundary.
Rishabh Pant had surpassed Pujara's score by then. Pujara weathered the early storm. Well, No.3 is often a thankless job. He occupied the crease for 136 balls, played 70 himself for 17 runs. Pant had got almost 71% of Pujara’s runs in that over from Cummins.
Even against Lyon's class, Pant looked in control as he slapped him through cover for a boundary in the next over.
Australians were forced to change their lengths. That’s what intent to score does. It builds pressure on the bowlers. Pant’s presence allowed Rahane the cushion to be himself. The Indian captain shifted gears during this period in the second session, scoring off every opportunity.
Mitchell Starc struck in a fresh spell, getting Pant to commit to a slash through point. It was a faint edge that did him. On another day, it would have found the rope, but today it was meant to be Starc’s 250th Test wicket.
Rishabh Pant and Rahane had added 57 off 87 balls, i.e. 3.93 runs an over. This Test match's run rate was 2.65 until Pant arrived at the crease to put things in perspective. During Pant’s stay at the wicket, Rahane got 28 off 47 balls. India now trailed by 22 runs. The pressure was back on Australia.
Later, Rahane’s century put India in command. If Rahane was the fuel that India needed this innings, Pant was the additive he needed at that juncture.
Rishabh Pant, an exceptional talent
Rishabh Pant’s style of play has often drawn criticism from many sections. MS Dhoni’s towering legacy has made it difficult for any keeper-batsman to make a mark for India.
If that wasn’t enough, there came the supple Saha, a man-made for the keeper's gloves. To make things more challenging are the comparisons with Adam Gilchrist for being a left-hander.
As a keeper, Rishabh Pant is a work in progress. As for his batting, Pant has centuries in England and Australia in a 14-Test career, something that no other wicketkeeper-batsmen from the subcontinent has achieved. The only other visiting keeper-batsman to accomplish this feat is West Indies great Jeff Dujon.
Rishabh Pant’s 29 is also his eighth consecutive 25+ score in Australia, a feat that has only been attained thrice before. Wally Hammond, Rusi Surti and Viv Richards are the only men to do it.
It was baffling that Pant was dropped at Adelaide despite the century he slammed in the warm-up game. Even if Saha was preferred as the keeper, Pant could have walked into the side as a specialist batsman.
Rishabh Pant was only 20 when he got the hundred in England in September 2018. He was 21 by the time he got his second ton in Australia. At that age, a young Dhoni was checking tickets at the Kharagpur Railway station, and a young Gilchrist was struggling to make a case for himself in the New South Wales line-up. He was 23 when he signed with Western Australia and made an impression.
For a player who can turn a game on its head, a looming axe doesn’t help his cause. Indian cricket will be better served if more confidence is shown to Rishabh Pant.