The Bharat v Kishan debate is close, but there is a clear winner
@ovshake42 3 minute read
With Rishabh Pant ruled out of cricket for an indefinite period, India have included two uncapped wicketkeepers in the Test squad – Ishan Kishan and KS Bharat.
Before evaluating the two potential candidates, let us take some time to understand how special a Test cricketer Pant has been. From 33 Test matches, Pant has scored 2,271 runs and effected 133 dismissals.
Let us understand how good a batter Pant has been. Pant averages 43.67, far considerably than MS Dhoni (38.09), Farokh Engineer (31.08), and Syed Kirmani (27.04) – the other three Indians to have scored 2,000 runs while playing as a wicketkeeper.
In fact, in the history of Test cricket, only two wicketkeepers have scored both more runs than Pant at a higher average, and both men are all-time greats of the format: Andy Flower (53.70) and Adam Gilchrist (47.60).
Since Pant’s debut, he has the highest batting average among all Indians with 2,000 runs – a list that includes even non-wicketkeepers. Virat Kohli averages 40.08 over this period and Cheteshwar Pujara 37.34, while Ajinkya Rahane has 1,990 runs at 34.91. Rohit Sharma averages 53.48, but across 1,658 runs.
Pant has overseas hundreds in three ‘SENA’ countries, where Indian batters have often found it difficult: 114 at The Oval in 2018, 159 not out at Sydney in 2018/19, 100 not out at Cape Town in 2021/22, and 146 at Edgbaston in 2022.
With a 2,000-run cut-off, Pant also has the highest strike rate in the world since his debut (74). The next batters on the list – Travis Head (61) and Babar Azam (57) – are some distance behind him.
Thus, since his debut, Pant has been the best Indian batter, the quickest scorer in the world, and he also keeps wicket. He has been among the most important cricketers in the world in this era.
Since the Sydney Test match of early 2021, Pant has also been batting at No.5 from time to time. In fact, from 10 innings at that position, he has 721 runs at 80.11, while striking at 94.
It is not about the runs alone, for promoting Pant serves two other purposes. Indian never had a left-handed specialist top-order batter since Shikhar Dhawan, who last played Test cricket in the same series when Pant made his debut.
That often allowed the opposition bowlers to settle into a line. They did not have to keep adjusting between bowling at right-handers and left-handers. By promoting Pant, India have helped break this monotony.
When he bats at No.5, Pant can also take on the bowlers with the knowledge that if he fails, there is at least one specialist batter after him.
To replace Pant would have been, thus, almost impossible for any side – especially in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, for he has batted 12 times against them, and his lowest score is 23.
He was one of the heroes of India’s first two series wins in Australia. In 2018/19, he made 350 runs from four Tests at 58.33 and held 20 catches. In 2020/21, 274 runs from three matches at 68.50 along with eight catches.
And all that was in Australia. At home, he was expected to do even better.
It was not about the batting alone. At one point, as late as the Adelaide Test match of 2020/21, the Indian team management used to pick the better wicketkeeper, Wriddhiman Saha.
But over the past two years, Pant’s wicketkeeping skills have improved significantly. He has converted his critics into his fans. His will be enormous boots to fill.
Who can replace Pant?
Bharat (4,707 runs at 37.95) and Kishan (2,985 at 38.76) have very similar batting averages in first-class cricket.
Of the two, Bharat keeps wicket for Andhra, is a regular in the Ranji Trophy, travels with the Indian squad as reserve wicketkeeper, and has played for India A.
He even kept wicket for India in a Test match, against New Zealand in Kanpur in 2021/22. With Pant rested, Saha was keeping wicket, and Bharat was in the squad as his understudy. When Saha had a stiff neck, Bharat stepped in to do an excellent job. He also took a difficult catch of Will Young off the bowling of R Ashwin.
Kishan, on the other hand, has not kept wicket in red-ball cricket in the Indian subcontinent since the 2020 lockdown. Even as a batter, he has played only twice this season and missed the previous season.
However, as we know, he can be destructive with the bat. He has impressed in limited-overs internationals and the IPL. And like Pant, he is a left-hander.
While discussing left-handers, it is important to remember that India had tried Ravindra Jadeja at No.4 in the tour match of their 2021 tour of England. He made 51, and was promoted to No.5 in both innings of the Oval Test match, ahead of Rahane and Pant.
In the last five years, Jadeja (47.39) averages more than even Pant (43.69) in Test cricket, though he has scored fewer runs (1,327).
Jadeja also has a very good record at No.6, he averages 54.50. Since Pant’s debut, that number reads 58.80. In the comfort zone of home conditions, he can bat a position above that.
To test his fitness, Jadeja turned up for Saurashtra in the last round of the league stage of the Ranji Trophy, against Tamil Nadu. He made 15 and 25, but took 1-48 and 7-53 in the match. He also bowled over 40 overs in the match, so one can assume he is fit. If he plays and is backed at No.5, he can serve as the left-hander India need, and allow the keeper to bat at No.7
The current Indian team management has also not hesitated to send Axar Patel to No.4 to combat left-arm spin. Additionally, the main threats of the Australian attack are likely to be off-spinner Nathan Lyon and their fast bowlers. Australia may not play a spinner who will turn the ball into the left-hander. A left-handed batter, thus, may not be as important in this series.
Kishan has been brilliant with the bat against world-class bowlers. Bharat has rarely faced bowlers of that quality.
But Bharat is the better wicketkeeper, and has kept wicket more often in first-class cricket in Indian conditions.
Rishabh Pant cannot be replaced. Bharat can be a reasonable replacement for Pant the wicketkeeper. Kishan, perhaps, for Pant the batter.
Of the two roles, the wicketkeeper is the more important. To win Test matches, India have to take 20 wickets. At home, spinners will be the key, and they need the best wicketkeeper for that.
Bharat, therefore, emerges as the better choice.