It was a hot evening in May of 2017, and an IPL match was going between Gujarat Lions and Delhi Daredevils.
I had the TV on and watching the game intermittently. Delhi was chasing a mammoth total of 209 in 20 overs. When I started paying attention to the chase, two batsmen were at the crease; one was Sanju Samson, and the other was a slightly chubby looking left-hander that I did not recognise. Right from the start, this left-hander pummeled the bowling, and the duo won that game for Delhi on a canter.
I sat up and took notice. In the post-match interview, this left-hander, who played for India U-19 the previous year, spoke about how he had told Samson not to worry and keep hitting. He said this with his infectious smile, and my mind registered his name: Rishabh Pant.
A couple of years later, it was an elimination match between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Delhi Capitals. Pant was at the crease, and Kane Williamson made the mistake of throwing a bait in front of Rishabh. Pant scored 22 runs off that over and reduced the game to a no-contest. Delhi won its first knockout game in IPL.
The telling image from the match was Williamson raising his eyebrows at one of those audacious shots that Pant played.
Kane is not the only one to make a face of astonishment when Pant played one of his outrageous strokes. The latest to join the bandwagon of astonished faces is the great James Anderson. In Pant’s latest innings at Ahmedabad, Rishabh played a reverse sweep off a good length delivery from Anderson and took him for a boundary over the first slip. When I watched Rishabh Pant score this match-winning hundred at Ahmedabad, I exclaimed that we had seen Sachin Tendulkar’s heir apparent.
I don’t think anyone on my social media account agreed to my hyperbole. Indians are yet to realise the genius amidst them.
Rewind to all the Indian Test matches since 2018 and remember an innings where Rishabh Pant struggled at the crease against any bowler. I can bet you there were none. In this period, India played Rishabh Pant mostly in their away games. These Test matches were played in Australia, England, New Zealand and the West Indies.
Except for the New Zealand series, he scored fifties or hundreds in each of these tours. In all of these innings, big and small, he rarely ever got out poking at deliveries or struggling for a period. Almost all of his outs were hits off the face of the bat.
The only complaint that most of us had was that he got himself out playing one shot too many. However, many pundits refused to take Pant seriously as a batsman.
Pant’s journey over the past 15 months has been fascinating. The year 2020 was quite bad for him. He did not do well in New Zealand with the bat. He had an ordinary IPL in the UAE and looked like a player who was lost on the big stage.
(Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)
Then came the 2020 Test series in Australia. Virat Kohli faced one of the main questions before the Adelaide test: selecting Rishabh Pant or Wriddhiman Saha as the wicketkeeper. Kohli went with Saha for the first Test. Before the Australia series, Pant was the preferred away-series wicketkeeper. This move away from the norm looked like a big setback for Pant.
Ajay Jadeja, who was on the commentary team during the Australia series, discussed his interaction with Pant when Jadeja was the Delhi Ranji team coach. Pant had been dropped from the Delhi Ranji team. Jadeja had met with Pant and told him that he could come over to the nets and practice alongside the Delhi team.
Pant had refused to join the nets and said to him that they would call him from his home when the team needed him. Such was Pant’s confidence in his utility for the team if they chose to see him the right way. I am sure he would have thought the same way when Kohli asked him to sit out of the first Test.
Disaster struck the Indian team at Adelaide. Just as Pant would have wanted, he got the call-up for the MCG Test. Pant’s little innings of 29 gave India the momentum and pushed Ajinkya Rahane out of his shell to score a magnificent hundred. It won’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that the Indian resurgence in the Australian series emerged from that little cameo.
Much has been written already about Pant’s glorious innings at Sydney and Brisbane. Those two nineties will remain in Indian cricketing folklore forever. The real Pant has stood up, and there was be no stopping him.
When the Indian home series started against England, I was curious to see how Pant would play on turning tracks. Pant was at ease playing the spinners, galloping at them, reaching the pitch of the ball and sending the ball screaming over the ropes. It is not that Pant did not get out in this series. But, once again, he barely ever looked out of place on the turning track.
Pant, in his short Test career thus far, has proven his abilities on different pitches in different countries. He has scored at will against all the bowlers and has seldom looked out of place. It is time for us to take this batting genius seriously. He will remain a force to be reckoned with for a long time.
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