Back in 2016, there were hushed murmurs in the Indian cricket circuit around a precocious youngster named Rishabh Pant. Alongside Ishan Kishan and Sarfaraz Khan, he was expected to lead India’s charge at the ICC U-19 World Cup in 2016, but apart from that, not many really thought that he would be thrown into the international mix soon.
There was plenty of talent. Pant had an uncanny ability of ripping any bowling attack to shreds and usually didn’t pay much heed to reputations. Yet, when he was snapped up by the Delhi Daredevils (Delhi Capitals now) for INR 1.9 crore, it took a lot of people by surprise. For context, he had only played a handful of First-Class and List A games and was as raw as any cricketer in the country.
A few, though, were willing to take a punt on Pant. To be fair to them, their hunches have yielded adequate reward, with him currently acting as DC’s skipper, having led them agonisingly close to the play-offs in IPL 2022.
Despite his achievements, however, it would take a brave person to suggest that they knew this was how his career was going to pan out. This pedestal might’ve been where he was destined to get ultimately. But was he really meant to do so at 24 years of age? Probably not.
Similarly, Pant’s international debut came a lot quicker than envisioned. After breaking onto the domestic and IPL scene, many felt he would eventually go on to replace MS Dhoni. His first appearance came alongside the veteran, meaning that Pant featured as a specialist batter until Dhoni hung up his boots post the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup.
He showed fleeting glimpses of his talent. But the extra responsibility, considering his role, led to more scrutiny than a 20 or 21-year-old is ordinarily prepared for. Fans even chanted “Dhoni, Dhoni” whenever Pant botched up and the former India captain was absent from the playing eleven, indicating how toxic an environment he was operating in. Just as quickly as he was thrown into the deep end, though, he found a way to navigate through it relatively unscathed.
In between, he also made his Test debut during India’s tour of England in 2018. Prior to that rubber, Dinesh Karthik was cast as the Men In Blue’s primary wicket-keeping option. A couple of failures, however, meant that Pant, who was averaging around 50 (might have been a tick over 50, actually) in First-Class cricket, was called upon. It wasn’t something that his numbers didn’t warrant. Was anyone expecting it to happen so soon? Probably not.
And then, the musical chair around the DC captaincy happened. In 2020, the franchise had lived up to its billing, going down to the Mumbai Indians in the summit clash. They’d enjoyed a decent auction before the 2021 season and under Shreyas Iyer, were expected to better their performance. But just when it seemed nothing could go wrong, Shreyas injured his shoulder and was ruled out of the tournament. And guess who was appointed captain in his stead?
At the time, it wasn’t known that that edition of the IPL would be split into two phases. So, from a DC perspective, they’d installed Pant at the helm thinking that Shreyas wouldn’t recover swiftly enough. It didn’t quite transpire in that manner.
When a fit Shreyas returned for the second leg, Pant continued as captain. Not because he had better numbers than his predecessors, but because the management, like so many others, thought that there was something about Pant – something that possibly ensures he is thrust into the deep end much before than other players of his age but also something that he justifies over time.
Rishabh Pant will captain India for the first time against South Africa
This India captaincy gig doesn’t feel any different. India were always expected to name a changed outfit, considering the excursions they have lined up post the South Africa series. But how many would’ve thought that Pant would be named skipper – that too after arguably his most indifferent display as captain in the IPL? Not many.
Remember, had Pant enjoyed a stellar IPL campaign, he might not have been part of this side altogether. If KL Rahul was fit, he would’ve been a deputy at best. But here he is, fully decked up and hoping to walk out for the toss at his home ground. This particular ebb and flow, if anything, is emblematic of everything that has happened in his career so far.
He has always been touted for greatness. The wicket-keeper wouldn’t have been named vice-captain for a relatively strong Indian outfit and wouldn’t have been labelled a potential skipper had he not been. However, at every possible juncture, things seem to arrive just a touch quicker for him than anticipated. Whether it be a T20I debut alongside Dhoni, a Test debut when the more experienced Karthik had begun floundering, or even the DC captaincy post Shreyas’ injury.
It's not something you would say he hasn’t deserved. But it also isn’t something someone can say they predicted when his temperament was being questioned at the start of 2020. And somewhere in between is where his career is going to be defined, make no mistake about that either.
No one, though, including Pant, knows what that point is. It has come to a stage where neither he, nor the Indian team, nor his thousands of well-wishers would really care. Not because they’ve lost interest, but because this is how it is. Or rather, this is how it has been all these years.