IPL 2017: Why Rishabh Pant should open for the Delhi Daredevils
Pant has so far batted for the side in the middle order.
The month is April, the year 2016. We are in the warm surroundings of Rajkot. The Gujarat Lions have posted a competitive 172 for 6 in their 20 overs The Daredevils need to win to keep their momentum intact.
In each of their 7 matches, they had failed to find a stable opening duo, who would provide them with a good beginning and crucially, take the pressure off an inexperienced middle-order, studded with Indian talent.
On this night, there was yet another change at the top with Quinton de Kock joined by 18-year-old, Rishabh Pant, fresh off an impressive Under-19 World Cup, where he smashed the fastest fifty in the history of the competition.
If that knock was any indication, then the spectators watching the game were in for an exciting Powerplay phase of the game.
But unlike Dhaka, Pant was up against an attack boasting of current and discarded international bowlers, and while it may not have been a daunting proposition, it was a challenge no less.
Pant, though, showed it did not matter who the bowler was at the other end. In a display of exceptionally fearless batting, the left-hander smashed a 40-ball 69, putting 115 for the opening wicket and ensuring that his side notched up a comfortable eight-wicket win.
There were a couple of things about the performance:
#1 It gave us an indication that here was a guy who was not scared of who was bowling at him. Some of the Under-19 players from previous editions of the league have seemed a bit overawed. Virat Kohli was one such player in the first IPL who just could not get going. Sanju Samson is someone who can also be put in the Pant category.
#2 The innings was proof about where one can see the real talent of Pant in the future. Given 20 overs to bat, he had shown what he could do and so, you wanted him to carry on playing in that position.
The side continued to use him at the top in the subsequent games despite not attaining as much success, but you hoped that they would provide him with the same role next year.
Cut to a year later. We are in Bengaluru. The Daredevils are up against the Royal Challengers and are facing a situation, similar to what they were against the Lions. Chasing 158 in any ground is not a tough task, at a venue like the Chinnaswamy, it eases out ever more.
But hang on, are the Daredevils not looking for a commanding win? For the indications seemed just that when Sam Billings walked out with Aditya Tare and not Pant.
Instead, Pant walked out at No. 5 and played perhaps the most emotional innings in the history of the IPL and had he got the support that he needed in the final overs, there was no doubt that he and his side would have emerged victorious in the contest.
Cricket fans like me and a few others just could not comprehend the decision to send Pant as late as that, when his strengths lay at the top. And in every game after, he has been used in the middle-order, much to the dismay of the fans watching.
Cast your mind back to the history of the IPL and to the teams who have succeeded in the competition. You will observe that in each of those sides, there was one player on top who gave the side the momentum it required at the start of the innings.
Chennai Super Kings had Matthew Hayden initially then had Murali Vijay. Deccan Chargers had Adam Gilchrist. Even the Rajasthan Royals in 2008, had the unknown, yet very effective commodity named Swapnil Asnodkar at the top.
The Daredevils so far this season have used Sam Billings, Sanju Samson, Aditya Tare and keeping the first name constant, rotated with the rest.
In his Twenty20 career, spanning 104 matches, the Englishman has a Strike-Rate of 124. Samson in his T20 career of 101 matches strikes at the rate of 119, while Tare has a strike-rate of 130, although he has not all the time played as an opener.
Compare this now to Pant: In 19 T20 matches, he has made 69 runs but crucially at a strike rate of 145 - more than any of the above mentioned names.
Using Pant at the top of the order will not just help in the side getting off at a fast rate, it would also allow the left-hander to play his natural game. Sometimes, in the middle-order, your responsibilities are inclined towards building the innings before beginning to launch.
With 20 overs at his disposal, Pant need not wait and can instead begin to go after the bowling from the outset. It will ensure that his side gets the early momentum and also put the opposition on the backfoot.
Can the Daredevils manage minus Pant in the middle order?
The obvious question is can the Daredevils find a player, who will effectively slot into the role which is not able to play with as much conviction? The answer is yes.
It is alright for players to be put outside their comfort zones in order to judge how good they can be, but in the present Daredevils squad, there are enough players who can play the middle-order role which Pant is doing right now.
Billings batted for the Daredevils in the middle-order last year and did a reasonable job. He also seems to have the ability to shift gears after a slow start. Karun Nair, who has been struggling at No. 3 can either be moved to 4 or 5. Chris Morris has already shown the damage that he can do when he has 10 balls left to bat, maybe when given 10 overs to bat, he would give you a more measured performance.
The Zaheer Khan-led side is the unique group, among the eight teams in this league. They don't have genuine overseas match-winners. They are not a side you could put your money on to chase tall scores. Hell, when picking your IPL Fantasy side, I don't think there is one player from this team, who would be a 'must-have' in your playing XI.
In such a scenario, they have no option but to provide their best players with the greatest chance to succeed.
Let us for a second look at a situation that could transpire in the future:
The setting is Hyderabad. The Daredevils are in the IPL final with any one of the seven teams. They bat well and then bowling equally well to win the IPL. Now imagine, a 38-year-old Zaheer climbing the dais to collect the majestic IPL trophy and then leading the way with the rest of his teammates, most of whom weren't even in high school, when he first played for India, for a lap of honour around the ground.
It would turn out to be the second most inspirational story in the history of the league, which would if it does, come 10 years after its inception. In between that, every heavyweight side must have triumphed.
But for the Daredevils to harbour any such hopes, they must get their batting order right and the best Under-19 player in the squad must bat where he belongs - at the top.