A couple of years ago, at the SCG, Rishabh Pant strode out to the centre, with India comfortably placed at 329-5 in the first innings. In fact, the visitors, who had earlier fashioned sensational victories in Adelaide and Melbourne, found themselves in the enviable position of having to defend a series lead, rather than being the side playing for pride.
At that juncture, Rishabh Pant unfurled an array of strokes, ultimately compiling a 159-run essay that didn’t just write him a chapter in the history books, but also assured India that their present and future, at least as far as wicket-keeping was concerned, wasn’t too shabby either.
Post that though, a number of circumstances (both predictable and unforeseen) have meant that Rishabh Pant has not hammered down a spot in any format of the game. In fact, plenty opined that he was lucky to be in the Indian touring party Down Under, for the current series. Quite a fall from grace, eh?
To that end, India opted for Wriddhiman Saha in the opening match of the Test rubber, inevitably stoking the debate of whether teams are better served fielding a specialist keeper. However, the ‘36-all out innings’ happened thereafter, meaning that the added batting cushion someone like a Rishabh Pant provides, suddenly became an appealing alternative.
Consequently, for the umpteenth time in his brief and fledgling career, Rishabh Pant was accorded another shot at redemption – something that has become as much a part of his persona as the confidence he displays with the willow. And, on the 11th of January, 2021, he walked away from the SCG having left, perhaps his greatest imprint on the Indian cricketing landscape.
Prior to Day 5 of the 3rd Test between India and Australia, there had been significant chatter about the former’s ability to bat out the day. To put things into perspective, India hadn’t batted that long in a Test in the 21st century Down Under and only two teams (South Africa and Pakistan) had crossed the 100-over mark in previous fourth-innings, in the past 10 years on Australian shores.
In fact, those clamours grew louder when Ajinkya Rahane was caught at short leg, having only added four runs to the team’s overnight total. At that juncture, nothing but an Australian victory seemed on the cards. A few hours later though, there was palpable talk about an Indian victory. And, that was made possible courtesy the heroics of a certain Rishabh Pant.
When India lost Ajinkya Rahane, countless people were surprised to see Rishabh Pant make his way to the middle, at Hanuma Vihari’s expense. Later in the day, the Indian skipper justified that call, saying the tourists wanted to keep a left-right combination to tackle the hosts’ threat.
Yet, one can’t help but wonder if Rishabh Pant was sent in to rattle the Australians’ cage, get under their skins, and play an innings that could potentially make India believe.
However, that wasn’t the tempo that defined the first third of Rishabh Pant’s innings as he pushed and prodded, seeming like he wanted to be anywhere but at the SCG, under the glare of a billion eyeballs.
On the 34th delivery he faced, he was beaten sumptuously by Nathan Lyon, who, till that point, had the ball on a string, getting it to dip and spin viciously past the batsmen’s defensive shield. Suddenly, the left-hander flicked a switch and the tentativeness gave way to the gay abandon that has often characterized his cricket.
The next two balls saw Rishabh Pant showcase a lot more intent, although he could manage only a couple of runs. Then, on the 4th ball of the 47th over, the wicket-keeper danced down the track and stamped his authority on the contest. A delivery later, he charged Nathan Lyon again, this time, dispatching him well over the long on fence.
Rishabh Pant's counter-attack stunned Australia
For the next hour and a half, Nathan Lyon was perhaps subjected to the harshest treatment he has received on the final day of a Test Down Under. Whenever the off-spinner bowled short, Rishabh Pant rocked onto the back foot and slashed it past point. When the balls were a little fuller, well, Rishabh Pant nonchalantly pumped Lyon over the fence.
In fact, the sheer audacity to try those strokes, let alone nail them, offered Australia a glimpse into Rishabh Pant and to an extent, the Indians’ psyche. To put things more bluntly, it told the Australians that even if India were to surrender, they would do so in a blaze of glory.
As for India, it made the dressing room and the entire nation harbor aspirations of an improbable victory. In short, on a day when self-introspection could have become the norm, Rishabh Pant highlighted the belief that had been running through Indian veins. And, belief, as learned men would testify, makes people scale much greater peaks.
Apart from the disdain he showed Nathan Lyon, Rishabh Pant was also willing to throw the kitchen sink at loose deliveries from fast bowlers. On occasions, Mitchell Starc and Cameron Green tried to pepper him with short balls. Yet, whenever their intensity, lines or lengths erred, the Indian punished them, and royally at that.
Thus, when Rishabh Pant breezed through to 97, he had generated genuine optimism that he would conjure one of the greatest counter-attacking tons in recent history – a century that would’ve ranked alongside those previously produced by Messrs. Ben Stokes & Kusal Perera.
Yet, just as the expectations grew manifold, Rishabh Pant perished to Nathan Lyon.
While there might be an inclination to chasten him for having played a relatively rash shot, it is also important to remember that that approach got him to 97. And, much like the majority of his career, Rishabh Pant died by the sword he has sworn to live by, even though he has regularly been questioned for those methods.
In the course of two hours though, Rishabh Pant had signified his worth to the Indian set-up, at least in red-ball cricket. For starters, his ability to counter-punch is arguably unrivalled, meaning that when he is at the crease, the opposition is always on the edge.
In fact, such is the fearless nature of his game-play, that teams, including his own, are often on ‘tenterhooks’, as Ravichandran Ashwin put it. But then again, not many people are able to do that, are they?
More tellingly though, in a batting order that sometimes smacks of monotony, he provides the breath of fresh air that can actually change the outcome of matches. He boasts the bravery, the courage, the conviction to go for his shots, and of course, the ability to shut out the white noise and play his natural game – which, effectively, constitute the attributes needed for a match-winner.
On the 11th of January, 2021, he married the raw potential with something tangible – perhaps one of the many denunciations aimed at him, over these years. Above all, he displayed the proclivity to turn a match on its head and make those in the dressing room believe – again, a skill not many are blessed with.
Thus, it seems a bit of a shame that Rishabh Pant is yet to carve a permanent niche for himself in Indian cricket. And, while the wicket-keeper has been guilty of spurning a few opportunities, he hasn’t particularly been given the environment to succeed.
To put things into perspective, he has always been earmarked as MS Dhoni’s successor, rather than being looked at, simply as Rishabh Pant – an equally talented individual. Additionally, the team management has been quick to issue a public dressing down, whenever there has been an opening.
In fact, that interview of Ravi Shastri opining that Rishabh Pant needed a ‘rap on the knuckles’, still reverberates as strongly as any of the statements he has made, during his tenure as Indian head coach.
Unfortunately for the wicket-keeper, all of those criticisms have come, despite him only turning 23 in October 2020. Seems a lot of trials and tribulations for a guy touted for great things, doesn’t it?
Yet, that could also be a by-product of the sheer talent Rishabh Pant possesses. Contextually, not many have been labelled to succeed MS Dhoni, for the former Indian skipper competes in a small list to be India’s finest cricketer. And, for Rishabh Pant to even be in the discussion, speaks of the expectations India has.
A couple of years ago, at the SCG, Rishabh Pant provided a peek into the breathtaking potential he boasts. And, in 2021, despite his career not having charted the upward trajectory he would’ve desired, he offered a much more vivid coup d'œil.
Yet, Rishabh Pant’s most vital contribution could be that of having enabled the Indians to see the luminescence at the end of what looked a dreadful and elongated tunnel. The aforementioned trait becomes much more desirable, considering happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, only if one remembers to turn on the light.
And, that, above everything else, is perhaps what differentiates Rishabh Pant and underlines his worth. In fact, he belongs to a rare breed of cricketers that arrive, once in a generation.
Agreed, that Rishabh Pant has his flaws and he might lead to a few furrowed brows, every now and again. Yet, with the prospective returns he offers, that shouldn’t be too bad an investment, should it?
After all, if Rishabh Pant can make a nation of a billion believe, despite needing more than 400 runs in the fourth innings of a Test, away from home, he surely has got to be special, right?Published 11 Jan 2021, 18:43 IST