Qualifier 1 of the recently concluded Indian Premier League (IPL 2020) was a one-sided affair.
The Mumbai Indians amassed 200 in their 20 overs thanks to a late assault from Hardik Pandya, and the Delhi Capitals fell to their third loss against Rohit Sharma's side in IPL 2020, this time by a whopping 57-run margin.
The game saw many storylines play out. Quinton de Kock faced off against his countrymen Anrich Nortje and Kagiso Rabada, while DC's famed Indian top 4 of Ajinkya Rahane, Prithvi Shaw, Shreyas Iyer and Shikhar Dhawan scored a combined 12 runs against MI's much-vaunted pace attack.
The most intriguing narrative in the game was the mini-battle between two similar players whose careers have followed completely different paths so far - Ishan Kishan and Rishabh Pant.
Pant has always been vocal behind the stumps, and was seen trying to indulge in some friendly banter with his India U-19 captain. A glimmer of a smile flitted across Kishan's face, but he soon turned a deaf ear to the chatter and put his head down to top-score for his team with an unbeaten 55. His DC counterpart, on the other hand, managed 3 off 9 balls after coming in as low as No. 6, and holed out in the deep off a left-arm spinner.
The game served as the perfect representation of how the two players' IPL 2020 campaigns went. Kishan finished as MI's leading run-getter with over 500 runs at an average of 57.33 and a strike rate of 145.76, while Pant's only fifty in the tournament came in the final. More concerningly, the Delhi keeper's strike rate in IPL 2020 was 113.95 - almost SIXTY points below that of his 2018 season.
Pant had a front-row seat to witness Kishan stake a firm claim for a call-up to the Indian cricket team, and the Jharkhand batsman's efforts must have also caught the eye of two other players watching through their TV screens after crashing out of IPL 2020 - KL Rahul and Sanju Samson.
Pant, Rahul, Samson and Kishan are largely the only players in contention to become India's next first-choice wicket-keeper. In this article, we analyse who the right candidate to fill the gaping hole left by MS Dhoni is.
The case for and against KL Rahul
KL Rahul is currently the first-choice keeper in the limited-overs formats, and earned a recall to the Test squad as well for the upcoming tour of Australia. The Karnataka man is on the back of a record-breaking IPL season in which he scored 670 runs in 14 games to clinch the Orange Cap by a landslide, and is high on both form and confidence.
The biggest factor in favour of Rahul is that he is only man among these four who is guaranteed to be part of the playing XI, at least in the white-ball teams. Even if India opt to go with the tried-and-tested pair of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan up top, and Shreyas Iyer at No. 4, Rahul is likely to slot in at No. 5.
And with India tending to stock up on all-rounders in ODI and T20I cricket even if (as MS Dhoni once politely reminded journalists) they're not exactly Jacques Kallis, the final pure batsman in the team might be Rahul. There's also no reason why he can't become a Test regular, with age and injuries ravaging the few years (or months) that Wriddhiman Saha has left in international cricket.
However, it remains to be seen if the 28-year-old can handle the workload that comes with keeping wickets in all three formats apart from being one of the team's main batsmen. After all, not everyone is MS Dhoni, and Rahul, whose name will certainly be discussed when the selectors think about appointing the next captain, shouldn't be burned out before hitting his prime.
Moreover, although Rahul has proven himself to be decent with the gloves on, India might choose to opt for more experienced hands behind the stumps.
The case for and against Rishabh Pant
Ungainly swipes across the line and flailing bats aside, Rishabh Pant is one of the best young players in the country and has already been given a decent run of games with the Indian cricket team in all three formats.
But it must be understood that the 23-year-old has been at the eye of a storm of criticism for years now, and life as an international cricketer hasn't been easy for him.
Pant had to overcome the disappointment of missing out on the 2019 World Cup squad (he was named as an injury replacement for Dhawan, causing Ambati Rayudu to wallow in his one-dimensional misery). And not everyone can take a World Cup selection snub like Rohit Sharma, who became arguably the greatest white-ball opener ever after missing out on the 2011 edition.
Pant has also been picked in the Test team seemingly at the toss of a coin between him and Saha, despite having recorded away hundreds in Australia and England. Saha turns 36 in less than a week and has a Test average of 30.2, which is significantly below Pant's (38.76).
The Delhi keeper is at a crossroads in his career right now, and a single selection call could either make or break his future with the Indian team. Yes, he will always have the IPL to fall back on, but a century or two from his competitors and the door to the playing XI might slam shut in an instant.
Pant must be backed, and as of now, he only has the red ball to prove himself against. Saha's fitness for the Australia Tests is under question, and if the veteran is ruled out, Pant will have the chance to weasel his way back into the white-ball setups. However, if Saha is fit, the team management might prefer his expertise behind the stumps despite his lack of flashiness in front of them.
The case for and against Sanju Samson
The numbers don't really justify Sanju Samson's candidature for a permanent spot in the Indian team. He has never scored over 450 runs in a single IPL season, and his first-class and List A averages - which are 37.64 and 30.57 - make for dreadful reading.
But as is the case many times in cricket, stats don't tell the whole story. Samson is a natural stroke-maker, and his impact on games can't be accurately measured in a few numerical values - after all, even the great Virender Sehwag averaged only 35 in ODIs and 21.88 in T20Is. The Kerala batsman also plays a majority of his domestic cricket on the minefields in his home state, which is notoriously bad at producing international-level batsmen.
Samson has a certain X-factor to his batting that can't be accurately put in words - so much so that he got a late call-up to the Indian ODI squad for the upcoming tour Down Under ahead of Pant. The selection panel clearly believes in the 26-year-old's abilities, as do fans across the world who're fed up with Pant's antics.
Samson's inveterate lack of consistency and tendency to throw his wicket away will undoubtedly be used against him in selection meetings, and the fact that he seems unable to buy a run during his lean patches only worsens matters.
The case for and against Ishan Kishan
The newest name to be thrown into the hat for the role of Indian wicket-keeper, Ishan Kishan had a true coming-of-age season in IPL 2020. Scoring over 500 runs and clearing the boundary on 30 occasions (the most by any batsman in the tournament), the explosive southpaw in excelled in any role that was given to him by his team.
Kishan's domestic numbers, while slightly better than those of Samson, aren't eye-catching (FC average of 37.53 and List A average of 36.46). But his IPL 2020 campaign had all the indications of him having rounded a corner as far as his batting is concerned.
The rash shots before getting his eye in were replaced by a steely resolve to see the game out and put away only the loose balls. The over-dependence on the leg-side was cast out of the window, and an emphasis on finding the gaps and playing with a straight bat was there for all to see.
Kishan truly seemed to be the real deal, and he didn't seem out of place against the best of bowlers. The 22-year-old, however, has only one IPL season of note behind him, and it's perhaps a shade too early to call him up to the national side. He hasn't done anything to prove his worth for the longer formats of the game as well, and has a long way to go before he can be considered for the Test team.
At the moment, KL Rahul is the clear front-runner to be India's first-choice keeper, and if his workload is managed with adequate periods of rest and a role lower down the order in all 3 formats, he is the right man to don the gloves for India.
The back-up wicket-keeper's role MUST go to Rishabh Pant. The Indian selectors have already invested heftily on him, and dropping him from the white-ball setups clearly sends the wrong message to a man who thrives on confidence.
Ignoring Pant seems like the selectors are giving up on their investment far before it produces sizeable returns. As Warren Buffett once succinctly put it, "Unless you can watch your stock decline by 50% without becoming panic-stricken, you shouldn't be in the stock market".
Pant's case is very similar - he has been given opportunities against all oppositions in all countries. The selectors would've had their doubts about putting their money in a youngster, and they wouldn't have done so if they didn't have utmost faith in his abilities. And now, when the going is slightly tougher than usual, they can't give up on him.
The contest between Samson and Kishan could go either way, and performances for India A and in the domestic circuit might make all the difference. The latter deserves a call-up to the T20I side, and if he takes the limited opportunities that will be on offer, Samson could find himself out of the Indian team in the blink of an eye.
However, should he put in a couple of solid performances in the white-ball leg against Australia, Samson might bring the curtains down on Kishan's future with the team even before the opening credits start to roll.
Final Verdict: KL Rahul, then Rishabh Pant, then either Sanju Samson or Ishan Kishan
Published 13 Nov 2020, 15:00 IST