Despite question marks around temperament, Rishabh Pant is here to stay in Test cricket, writes Rohit Sankar after the wicketkeeper fell for an 88-ball 91 in Chennai in the first Test against England.
VVS Laxman once said that one of his best memories of MS Dhoni was when he came back into the dressing room after a maiden Test hundred in Faisalabad in Pakistan and announced aloud that he wanted to retire from Test cricket.
“MS Dhoni, mai hundred maara Test cricket mein, bas yaar [I, MS Dhoni, have hit a century in Test cricket…that’s it!],” the former Indian captain apparently said according to Laxman on Star Sports’ Cricket Connected.
From a wild, long-maned, carefree youth hailing from a small town, Dhoni shaped into a figure the cricketing world looked up to for his zen-like composure under pressure. He wasn’t the swiftest or safest behind the stumps at the onset of his career, but he morphed into a brilliant wicketkeeper who could pull off freak stumpings and spectacular catches.
It is hard to not think of the early years of MS Dhoni when you watch Rishabh Pant. It’s a comparison you wouldn’t dare to speak about, for as much as Pant is liked, the cult status Dhoni has gained transgresses the realm of the Gods, one that Indians reserve for their dearest cricketers. Pant isn’t there yet. He likely never will be, for he has divided opinions more than united fans.
But it’s a comparison you cannot neglect. Dhoni’s shoes haven’t been filled yet, and the ideal replacement would bat like Pant, have the tenacity of Cheteshwar Pujara and keep like Wriddhiman Saha. There’s no such player, and there never might be one.
Pant is a heedless batsman and a sloppy and chatty wicketkeeper; an easy target, if you will, for fans looking to play the blame game. Off Jasprit Bumrah’s first ball in Tests in home soil, Pant put a catch down diving to his leg-side. He fumbled multiple times off the Indian spinners on a docile wicket. As a stumping chance went begging, Ravichandran Ashwin had his palms to his face in dismay. Pant’s keeping is a mess, even more so against spin which has made his selection a debatable issue in home Tests before. According to CricViz, his catch success against spinners is less than 50 per cent.
India’s fielding coach, R Sridhar revealed on Ashwin’s YouTube channel that his first thought on watching Ashwin turn the ball in the Melbourne Test in Australia was “how is Rishabh Pant going to keep to Ashwin on this wicket”. Pant’s keeping is a “work in progress” according to Sridhar, but it might be a role he is only fulfilling for the time being. It is with the bat that Pant promises much more. But those promises have come with its fair share of drama.
Four times in his 17-match career Pant has been dismissed in the nineties. Three of those, including the latest one in Chennai on Sunday, have come with him trying to club the spinner out of the park. It’s a questionable shot when the team is five down for 220-odd runs, staring at a deficit of more than 350. But, it’s also the very shot that lifted the team from a precarious 73-4. In Sydney, it came with the team looking to save a Test match on the final day.
In Brisbane, clumsy wicketkeeping from Tim Paine saved a similar moment and Pant went on to capitalise the opportunity and take India home. He was lauded then. But had that fairly easy stumping chance been completed, he would have been ridiculed for even daring to attempt a shot like that with the team needing him to bat on.
This is the narrative with everything Pant looks to pull off. Against Jack Leach on Sunday, he stepped out to smother him over long-on and mid-wicket five times with men waiting in the deep. Thrice, it just evaded the fielder in the deep and went over the ropes. “He can give you heart attacks; he can give you heart aches; he can give you heart breaks, but he can also give you moments that take your breath away,” Sridhar had said of Pant after the Australia tour. He couldn’t have summed it up better.
In Pant, India have someone who could carve a legacy of his own. He might never be a world class wicketkeeper. He might make you facepalm and scream at the TV. He might never shape into what Dhoni turned into later in his career. But he will keep instilling fear into the opposition camp, and on his day, could pull off heists like in Brisbane.
“He [Pant] is missing out on hundreds,” Pujara said in the press conference after day three of the Chennai Test while also acknowledging the role he played in lifting India from a tricky situation.
Dhoni made all of three centuries in his last 50 Test matches. After 17 Test matches, Pant has two hundreds, four scores in the nineties and a match-winning 89*. In 144 Test innings, Dhoni crossed 90 eleven times. Pant has more than half of that in just 27 innings. He has Test hundreds in England and Australia, a feat Dhoni never managed outside Asia.
It isn’t just Dhoni that Pant has overshadowed with his batting. Since his Test debut, Pant has more runs than all wicketkeepers and a better batting average than all but one. He has better Test batting numbers than Quinton de Kock, arguably the benchmark in terms of wicketkeeping-batsmen among modern Test cricketers.
See him as a pure batsman, and his numbers still standout. Only two batsmen average more than him from No.5 or lower in Tests since his debut: Henry Nicholls and Ben Stokes. The Englishman just averages one run more than him. Pant isn’t just a prodigy in the making, he is one already.
Each of Pant’s last three Test matches have seen him agonisingly miss out on a hundred. When he does make a hundred next, don’t be surprised if you hear him sing on the stump mic while slamming that six over long-on. That is Pant for you. He is no Dhoni, but Pant being Pant is good enough for the team.