A little more than three weeks ago, Rishabh Pant would’ve been a very confused man. After the 2019-20 season of Test cricket where India played five Tests at home and two in New Zealand, it seemed almost clear that Rishabh Pant was India’s preferred wicket-keeping choice away from home where the fast bowlers do the bulk of the job and runs are vital lower down the order. Meanwhile, Wriddhiman Saha was the preferred one on turning tracks at home.
However, Saha was picked for the first Test in this Test series at the Adelaide Oval (pink-ball Test). That raised a lot of eyebrows. Pant had just smashed a quickfire hundred in the pink-ball warm-up fixture. It didn’t come against the greatest of attacks but it was a confidence-boosting knock for sure, one that ascertained his abilities in tough away conditions. He had kept decently well too and despite that, it was Saha who got the nod.
The first Test didn’t go too well for India or Saha (who had a poor game with bat and gloves) and India went on to overhaul the side. With Ravindra Jadeja included as the all-rounder to bat at No. 7, India needed their wicket-keeper to contribute with the bat and that’s where Pant came back in. But then again, the question came up: for how long does he hold on to his place? What if he fails in a couple of games and his keeping isn’t up to the mark?
But this is Rishabh Pant, a superstar who ends up being criticised heavily almost every other day for his wicket-keeping or his recklessness with the bat. It hardly fazes him. He’ll go along the same way, perhaps throwing in a chat or two from behind the stumps.
In two Test matches that Pant has played in this series against Australia, he may have dropped three catches; a couple of them even straight-forward ones. However, the Delhi lad has played two knocks that changed the momentum of the innings and one that turned the game on its head – 29, 36 and 97.
That innings of 97 will be rated as one of the best he’s ever played in his short career so far. When Pant was out caught at backward point trying to heave a Nathan Lyon delivery over extra cover, the classic and clichéd phrase of “living by the sword and dying by it” came alive. But this innings had much more to it.
READ: SCG AND INDIA
Pant had already received a lot of flak on the first day of the Test match as he dropped Australian debutant Will Pucovski twice. He let his bat do the talking when he came out to bat in the Indian innings and he forged a resurgent stand with Cheteshwar Pujara, helping India eat into the target.
And just when he was breaking free and looking at his best, a Pat Cummins delivery didn’t rise enough and hit him on the left elbow. That looked nasty. Pant was in a lot of pain and had that elbow heavily strapped up before continuing. But that didn’t help as he struggled and the inevitable dismissal came around. It wasn’t before he made 36, the ninth straight innings in Australia where he had gone past 25 (he eventually made it 10 innings in a row).
Rishabh Pant has scored 25 or more in 10 consecutive innings that he has played in Australia in Tests.
No visiting player has more than 8. What a start to this career in longer format. pic.twitter.com/Uql6yaxh8e
— Johns. (@CricCrazyJohns) January 11, 2021
Luckily, the scans didn’t show any major damage and Pant was available to bat in the fourth innings (he didn’t keep in the last session of day three and the entire day four). However, the left-handed wicket-keeper batsman was still in pain and he wasn’t looking comfortable in the nets.
But India needed him and they needed him badly as their talismanic all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja had a dislocated thumb and their fragile batting had cost them quite a few Test matches in the past. The team management sprung a surprise as they sent Pant ahead of Hanuma Vihari at No. 5 to have a left-right combination (as Ajinkya Rahane revealed in the post-match presentation) and it worked out beautifully.
He came out in the second over of the fifth day as India desperately needed someone to accompany Pujara in his bid to tire out the Aussie bowlers and he found an able partner in Pant. The left-hander came out and looked like he is out to defend everything. He scored just 5 from his first 34 balls before he decided to take Nathan Lyon on and hit him out of the attack.
In fact, that was one of the battles of the series – Pant vs Lyon. Pant was dropped early on off Lyon and it proved to be very costly. Once he got his eye in, there was no stopping Pant. In the space of two overs, Pant smashed Lyon for three fours and a six. That prompted Tim Paine to remove Lyon from the attack. The Australian captain got his premier off-spinner back after a few overs but Pant smashed Lyon for a couple more massive sixes to force the change once again. Lyon changed ends three times and nothing seemed to work. And when he did get it right, his captain didn’t aid him, dropping a couple of chances.
It was Lyon, who eventually brought an end to his break-taking knock and had the last laugh. Yes, Pant was lucky a couple of times but for most part of his innings, he was in total control and had just 11% false shots on the fifth day (according to CricViz), least by any batsman.
Rishabh Pant was both the fastest scorer (4.93rpo) and the most controlled batsman (11% false shots) on Day 5 of this Test. #AUSvIND
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) January 11, 2021
Mind you, he may not have shown it but Pant had taken some injections and pain-killers and batted through pain and in some style. It was such a knock that when he was at the crease, India would’ve seriously fancied their chances of hunting 407 down.
Rishabh Pant is batting through pain here. Interesting how when the drinks are brought out, the substitute assists him with the bottle, making sure the batsman doesn’t have to use his arm any more than he has to in the middle #AusvIND
— Bharat Sundaresan (@beastieboy07) January 11, 2021
That 97 shook the Aussies and they just had to force themselves to take the foot off the pedal for a while. Nathan Lyon, who had run through this Indian batting line-up multiple times in the past (many a time in the fourth innings), was left clueless. Most of his runs may have come off Lyon but the way Pant played the trio of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc was excellent as well. He pulled and cut well and was driving crisply on the up. He even took on Cameron Green in one over.
His dismissal may not have been the best one and India needed him to bat long. It may have been a single-legged Hanuma Vihari and a resilient Ravichandran Ashwin putting up a remark show of resistance to force a draw but Pant’s knock of 97 went a long way in helping India achieve that result. He may not have won the Man of the Match but he definitely was one major factor in denying Australia a win. He lived by the sword and died by it, but ensured India didn’t.
Rishabh Pant may not be the best wicket-keeper going around even in India, let alone world cricket and it is something he will only get better with time and experience. One thing you will always get from him is that he will ensure he is the game-changer with the bat.
Yes, he may not have won India the game, he threw it away on 97 when India needed him to play longer, but that’s how he plays and that’s what you are going to get with him. Maybe it’s time India and the world accepts the fact and moves on. Rishabh Pant may not be perfect and will cop criticism every other day. But he is a superstar and he is born to be the game-changer.