The Rishabh Pant Saga: Emergence, Rise and Fall of the Southpaw

One of the most talked about and talented young cricketer is 22-year-old Rishabh Pant, who was born in Roorkee, Uttrakhand, India. The hard-hitting wicket-keeper batsmen who belongs to see-ball-hit-ball school of cricket, was ranked #30th on Forbes India’s 2019 Celebrity rankings which are based on estimated earnings and fame quotient. Only Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar and Rohit Sharma were ahead of him among the cricketers. In his short career so far, Pant has seen more highs and lows than many more established cricketers, which makes him an exciting prospect.

He first came into the limelight as an 18-year-old during the 2016 ICC Under-19 World Cup held in Bangladesh, where in the tournament he dazzled the oppositions with a couple of fifties (including a 24-ball 75 against Nepal) and a hundred against Namibia which helped India Under-19 make it to the finals. He had showcased his skills on the big stage with a couple of explosive knocks and impressed one and all. The biggest positive from the tournament for the country was the emergence of Pant.

Stunning performances in the Under-19 World Cup opened the doors of cash-rich IPL for him. Pant went into the IPL 2016 auctions with a base price of Rs 10 lakhs, where he grabbed the eyeballs and was bagged by Delhi Daredevils (as Delhi Capitals were then called) for staggering Rs 1.9 crores. In IPL 2019 he drew a fat paycheck of Rs 15 crores from Delhi Capitals, with only Virat Kohli who fetched Rs 17 crores from RCB was getting paid more than him. In his second season of IPL, Rishabh demonstrated grit and determination by overpowering grief to join Delhi Daredevils camp hours after performing last rites of his departed father.

Playing only his second Ranji season in 2016-17, Pant had a dream run scoring 972 runs in 8 games at an average of 81, with 4 hundreds including a triple-hundred against Maharashtra and a 48-ball hundred against Jharkhand which is record fastest hundred in Ranji Trophy cricket. With an extraordinary Ranji season behind, where he was able to consistently get the big scores at a fast pace, his career got a great leap forward. He went on to lit up Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in 2018 with a 32-ball hundred against Himachal Pradesh which is also second fastest hundred in T-20 history.                                

Consistent performances in the domestic-circuit earned Rishabh a spot in India’s T20I squad for the series against England in January 2017. Later that year he made his Test debut against England at Trent Bridge, where he became the first Indian batsmen to get off the mark with a six in Test cricket. His Test career blossomed with a hundred against England at The Oval, he followed it up with a couple of 92’s against West Indies at home and a 159 not out against Australia at Sydney. With a couple of overseas hundreds to his name, 21-year-old Pant created an uproar in the cricketing circles and was touted as the next big thing in Indian cricket. His initial promise was such that he was already being compared to the Great’s of the game like Adam Gilchrist and MS Dhoni. He even went to bag the 2018 ICC Emerging Player of the Year award.

After narrowly missing out on India’s 2019 World Cup squad, Rishabh was named as the replacement for injured Shikhar Dhawan and was fast tracked into India’s playing XI. But he left Indian skipper Virat Kohli infuriated, when during India’s semi-final run chase, after getting off to a good start, he played a rash shot of Mitchell Santner to get out at a crucial moment. Virat Kohli was seen having an animated discussion with Ravi Shastri post the wicket. India lost the big semi-final and were out of the tournament. If he ever happens to travel back in time, he would want to correct this shot which got him out at an important juncture in the game. Just when everyone thought that Pant was here to stay, came this moment of reckoning for him, which led to beginning of his downfall as critics started questioning his shot selection and temperament. It was this moment which also dented his confidence as a player.



Although he became the preferred wicket-keeper for India in all three formats post the world cup, he never looked the same player anymore; his stroke play didn’t look the same and it appeared as if he was doing things half-heartedly. Constant pointing out of his weaknesses in the media by head coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli didn’t help his confidence either. His poor batting form started affecting his wicket keeping as well with the DRS calls going wrong, which resulted in him giving very little inputs to the skipper for DRS calls. Subsequently, he first lost his place in the Test team to Wriddhiman Saha and then to KL Rahul in white ball cricket. Pant, who was backed as the first-choice wicket-keeper post the 2019 World Cup, has lost his place in all three formats in a little over 5 months.

Rising from this low point in his career depends on how he keeps himself motivated and proves the critics wrong by performing consistently both in front and behind the stumps. What then should this immensely talented player be focusing on while he is biding his time on the side-lines?

Fitness

It is no secret that Team India has set high fitness standards for all team members under the leadership of Virat Kohli. Another extremely talented youngster (and Rishabh Pant’s former Under-19 teammate) Sarfaraz Khan was dropped from Virat led IPL franchise RCB due to his below par fitness levels. Pant is not the fastest when it comes to running between the wickets and is not as swift in the outfield when not wicket-keeping. He will need to have a strong fitness regime to impress the skipper. He can take a leaf out of careers of former cricketers Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan, both of whom went to France in 2013 for a six week rigorous training programme to regain fitness and form. Such intense training camps will help him build strength and endurance levels.

 

Sharpening his Glovework

Rishabh Pant is still work in progress with the gloves behind the stumps and has drawn a lot of criticism in last few months for his errors. As per a recent report, coach Ravi Shastri even went on to say that, “Rishabh Pant is not a natural keeper”. While I do not approve of pointing out the flaws of a young player by a coach in public, I do agree that Pant will have to continue working hard on his wicket-keeping skills if he has to serve Indian cricket for a long time. His predecessor MS Dhoni wasn’t the best wicket-keeper either at the start of his career and was missing even straight balls on India’s tour of England in 2007, but worked with Farokh Engineer to fix a few flaws with his keeping. Similarly, Rishabh will have to work with a wicket-keeping specialist to sort out any technical flaws with his keeping.

NAGPUR, INDIA – MARCH 04: Rishabh Pant of India ahead of game two of the One Day International series between India and Australia at Vidarbha Cricket Association Ground on March 04, 2019 in Nagpur, India. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Building an Innings

One would expect that Pant with the kind of big hitting reputation would have been an instant hit in white ball cricket, but his performances so far have been rather modest. He has played a few cameos in the shorter formats but hasn’t gone on to convert them into big scores. One can only blame reckless shot selection for the lack of big scores and failing to live up to the high expectations. His blow hot blow cold sort of a batting approach has come under the scanner time and again. He needs to work on his temperament and shot selection to play according to the situation. If he can just sort out the mental aspect without changing his natural game much, and know when to rotate the strike, when to change gears, which areas and which bowlers to target, he will be much better off, just like he did not take much risks off Nathan Lyon and targeted other bowlers during the Sydney Test against Australia last year, and went on to get a hundred. He has all the skills, the question is of execution and he will get better with experience. He needs more game time to work on these things, but if he’s not able to make it to the playing XI as has been the case during the recently concluded ODI series against Australia and the ongoing T20 series against NZ, it won’t help him much. No one gets better practicing just in the nets. It so appears that he will continue to be picked as a 2nd wicket keeper in the squad, which would mean that he cannot play for India A or Ranji Trophy either. It is also the responsibility of the team management and BCCI to make sure they arrange for him to play some tournaments, while still keeping him in the mix of things. A County Stint in England would be a good option, many past greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid have benefitted from it and may work for Pant as well.

IPL 2020

Well then he is left with the most popular T20 league in the world, 13th season of Indian Premier League, which is coming up in April-May 2020. Rishabh Pant who is part of the Delhi Capitals had a fantastic IPL 2018 and a good IPL 2019, he will be hoping to repeat the heroics in IPL 2020 as well, to earn his place back in the India playing XI, if not as a wicket-keeper, at least as a batsmen. It’s surprising to see him sitting out of the India’s recent T20 matches, as this is the format where he can be the most dangerous with his power hitting. But Indian team management seems to have different plans at the moment. We have seen in the past that performances in the IPL do get recognized, so he must continue to practice his power hitting and be ready for this edition. If he can somehow get an opportunity to bat in the Top 3 during the IPL, it may work wonders for him, it would be ideal to get some big scores under his belt, as batting lower down the order one rarely gets enough time to build an innings. IPL is a gift to him, another good season will bring him back into the reckoning. He will get at-least 2 games against RCB led by Virat Kohli and that will be his opportunity to smash RCB bowlers, to prove a point to his skipper. Brilliance witnessed on the field does get recognition.

Epilogue

Rishabh Pant has got all the talent and skills needed to excel at the highest level, but just needs to get the all-important mental aspect of the game in place. He would also benefit if Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri can back him and give him the confidence like former India captain and current BCCI President Sourav Ganguly did with Yuvraj and Sehwag. You don’t clean dirty laundry in public, as is the approach of the current team management, since it doesn’t help the confidence of a young player. Sometimes the critics forget that he is just 21 and not like 24 or 25 which is the age when you mature as a cricketer.

Pant has played 14 ODI innings so far and if we compare his stats with the first 14 ODI innings of Yuvraj and Sehwag, who were also impact players like Pant, we will find that his numbers are slightly better than the duo who went on to become great players and single-handedly won games for India on several occasions.

Some players do take some time early on to find their feet in international cricket, and the good thing with Rishabh is that he is just 22, so he has got age on his side. And like former Australian captain and Delhi Capitals Coach Ricky Ponting responded to me on Twitter, Pant has huge amount of talent and should be back in the Indian team sooner rather than later.

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