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A demotion in the batting order could bring the best out of Rishabh Pant

Pant England
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 3 minute read

After a rollicking start to 2021, Rishabh Pant‘s red-hot form has began to subside during the ongoing Test series with England. Aadya Sharma takes a look at what’s going wrong for the attacking keeper-batsman.

On a day when India lost eight wickets for 63 runs, a section of hurting fans on Twitter, probably looking to find a scapegoat for the innings loss, circulated a few seconds-long clip of Rishabh Pant shadow practising at the non-striker’s end as James Anderson approached the bowling crease. It was a harmless act by a new batsman, practising his beloved flick shot with his back to Ajinkya Rahane, but it blew up into a whole debate over his so-called insouciance – ‘Why wasn’t he paying attention in case of a possible DRS referral?’ was the rallying cry of his critics.

Despite being anointed India’s next Test hero just months ago, Pant just can’t get rid of the trail of criticism that seems to follow him.

He’s always been a divisive figure in Indian cricket, looking to follow in the footsteps of a former great and holding the key to India’s future. Some love the way he plays, others aren’t convinced still, but one thing’s clear – there’s still some way to go before each dismissal of his is overanalysed to the point it loses context.

And so, when he flirted with a widish delivery outside off, looking to make something of a morning where India had lost three wickets for 24 runs, the guns were out again. It wasn’t too dissimilar to his dismissal to Ollie Robinson from three days ago, one that had hastened India’s collapse to 78 all out.

He now averages 17.40 in this series, lower than any of the other specialist Indian batsmen. His technique, or the supposed lack thereof, is back among the crosshairs.

For a batsman as talented as him, who still averages 43.31 in 2021, a few failures surely can’t take away the brilliance he possesses, and the unmatched impact that he’s provided leading up to the series.

Pant is unlikely to ever change how he really bats, and that’s how it should be, for time and time again, he’ll win you games with it. However, there’s still scope to bring some method to his madness, especially in conditions as tricky as England. Pant can really turn a game on its head, and he’s done that repeatedly in the last eight months, but he’s currently backing himself to force a style from the get-go, without appearing to assess the game like he usually does. A sharp, street-smart mind, Pant has shown that he can gauge a situation quickly and pick moments to act, but this series has seen him dangle between opposite poles of offence and defence, before succumbing to the situation (and quality seam bowling).

On Saturday, for instance, Pant perished trying to take on Anderson and Ollie Robinson, both with their tails up after the fall of Pujara, Kohli and Rahane. Off his first deliveries against both Anderson and Robinson, Pant danced down the track, trying a nothing shot really – it wasn’t the smartest move with the second new ball just 10 overs old, and India desperately trying to survive in the Test. There’s a fine distinction between reckless and aggressive, and the 23-Test-old Pant surely knows it, but isn’t expressing it in the best way.

Beyond Pant’s approach, there’s an even bigger discussion waiting to be had. With India squeezing in four quicks, and Ravindra Jadeja the lone spinner/all-rounder, Pant has found a place at No.6, but it may not be giving India the best of him.

Pant’s defensive game is still a work in progress, and he’s likely to become a more compact batsman as his career progresses. But, he’s still probably not ready to be a consistent No.6, especially with the form of India’s top five still fraught with inconsistency. A possible solution is handing Jadeja a promotion – the all-rounder averages a solid 35.86 away from home since the start of 2018 and has improved his defensive play significantly in recent times. Now armed with the ability to spend time at the crease and keep bowlers at bay, Jadeja can prove to be a more dependable fit after Rahane, while giving Pant more freedom (and more runs) to play his natural game at seven.

That said, it’s not that India’s problems start and end with the No.6 position. As bigger contributions continue to be expected from India’s top four, an alternative solution would be adding more depth by bringing in a specialist middle-order batsman. There’s Hanuma Vihari waiting on the sidelines, and there’s Mayank Agarwal too as a bonus option, but that depends on the overall composition of the side, and the shape of the bowling attack. Either way, Pant is probably better positioned to bat at No.7, the position from where he struck a fine 114 at The Oval during the 2018 tour.

The next Test is at the same venue and it will be quite symbolic if he hits form there. Any which way, there’s still enough room for Pant’s idiosyncrasies in this team, and there’s plenty of magic yet to come.

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