@Aadya_Wisden 5 minute read
From public enemy to the toast of the nation, Rishabh Pant‘s life oscillates in extremes. After his Cape Town masterclass, Aadya Sharma takes a close look at an extraordinary cricketer who deserves lasting appreciation from the public.
“Give me freedom, give me fire…”
Rishabh Pant stood with Mohammed Shami at the non-striker’s end, looking into the distance as K’naan’s Wavin’ Flag echoed across the empty stands of Newlands. Two balls later, he swung wildly at a Duanne Olivier delivery, the bat flying out of his hand and landing yards behind square on the leg side. He then awkwardly chased a wide delivery, almost falling off balance as his momentum carried him to the side of the pitch.
Pant’s been doing this in the India kit for half a decade. He never breaks character. Here’s a boy who loves to swing his bat around like Thor’s Mjölnir, waving it so hard that it flies away on occasion. He loves to dance around the crease, squat and pirouette a little, all while facing a cricket ball at 90 miles an hour. In cricket, seldom do you find characters so unapologetically themselves.
Ahead of the Cape Town Test, there were all sorts of comments, discussions and debates around Pant. Days before, he had jumped out of his crease against Kagiso Rabada, arguably the most threatening 26-year-old bowler going around, edging the ball behind with an agricultural hoick for a third-ball duck. It was bizarre: even an eight-year-old in an oversized coaching tee would tell you that it was an ugly-looking shot.
From TV experts in their tight blazers to self-appointed pundits on Twitter, there was no dearth of opinion-makers over Pant’s faux pas. Data of all sorts was floating around, screenshots and video clips dissecting the stance, follow-through and what-not.
Did it matter to Pant? Probably not. At least it didn’t look like it. When he came out to bat in Newlands, there was the same Pant, happily cutting and driving. 139 balls later, he was casually walking back, having scored 100 out of India’s 198. No other keeper, barring Adam Gilchrist of course, has reached three figures in Australia, England, India and South Africa.
The first six balls he faced were all Rabada and Pant promptly scored nothing off them, letting four of those go behind. The first ball of his next over was pinged in short, but Pant was having none of it, smacking it violently for a four past square-leg. From there on, it was Pant’s typical exuberance on show, gently taking the pressure off Virat Kohli as India took baby steps towards a total worthy of defending.
He cruised into the forties in no time, and the confidence grew, but any misstep then would have resulted in a quick fold of the India innings: the lead was past 130 and there was only the tail to follow. Did Pant change his ways? Nine balls before lunch, he romped down the pitch to Keshav Maharaj, connecting rather unconvincingly, but somehow managing to clear long-on. Had he missed it, and it looked for a moment that he might just have, the swords would have been out again. And yet, there he was, four overs after lunch, clubbing Maharaj for back-to-back sixes.
To comprehend Pant, the Test cricketer and his approach, it’s imperative to understand his origin story. He’d already made waves in the U19 World Cup, but when an 18-year-old Pant, playing just his fourth first-class game in the 2016/17 Ranji Trophy, smashed a triple century against Maharashtra, those around him knew there was something special in the making.
“The only thing he wanted was to play at No.5,” K Bhaskar Pillai, Pant’s Delhi coach back then, tells Wisden India. “One of the senior [Delhi] players was asked to shift to six, though he didn’t like it. I said ‘No, I have to respect his [Pant] confidence. He told me he will deliver, and I should give him a chance’. This guy came out with 900 runs [972 runs at 81 in the Ranji season, strike-rate of 107.28] which is very creditable.”
Recalling his triple hundred in a 2017 interview, Pant said: “Bas ye tha ki do din bahut fielding ki hai; ab do din batting karni hai kaise bhi karke. Bas. [It’s just that after fielding so much for two days, I just wanted to bat for two days. That’s it].
“There were times he overdid it and threw his wicket away,” Bhaskar says. “Fair enough, as far as he backs himself and confident that he’ll clear any boundary, he should continue playing like this.”
“He’s an impact player, don’t think there’s any reason to change his batting style,” Bhaskar continues, insisting that he shouldn’t curb his natural strokeplay. “Got all the shots in his repertoire. He can really change the game in about half-hour if he survives, you see the scoreboard ticking.”
A marvel at 24, Pant’s game can only get better from here, and while Bhaskar promotes the left-hander’s natural style, he does believe that a more mature approach will follow in the coming years.
“From a coach’s perspective, the management and the captain expect a bit more consistency from him,” Bhaskar notes. “That’s why, when he plays all these extravagant shots and gets out, he looks very stupid when he gets out, like the last match where he jumped out to a fast bowler and got himself out, and there was some kind of sledging going on with one of the close-in fielders and he lost his cool. He was trying to take [on] the bowler. You don’t need to do that.
“He’s still young, he’s got time. The maturity will slowly come, and he will be more responsible as the years go by. The consistency part is something the [Indian] management is looking from him, since now he is playing as a sixth batsman, pure batsman, they expect runs from him on a regular basis. It’s a matter of time.”
From the Oval to the SCG, to Cape Town, he’s done it all, and under intense scrutiny. For a player who has a larder full of achievements before turning 25, Pant probably doesn’t get the love and support that he deserves. There’s always a section baying for his blood, telling him to play a certain way and singling out faults. Pant never cared, and he shouldn’t be expected to, for that’ll take away the magic of his batting. He’s always been a free spirit. That’s what makes him who he is.
“Is ladke ko free hi chhod do [Just let this boy stay free],” tweeted Sehwag when Pant was in his element in Cape Town. A quarter of a century ago, someone must have said the same to Sehwag. And that’s probably why he ended up being where he did. It’s incredible what Pant can do, and it’s incredible he backs himself to do it, again and again, and again. It’s time we back him too. Eyes closed.
“The only advice I can give him,” says Bhaskar, “is to not get bothered about all these reports that come in. Best thing to do is not to read these articles and comments. It’s very easy to sit outside and write comments and talk about the flaws in one. People forget that, after all, they’re human. They are bound to make mistakes.
“With him, he has always been a confident guy. He has a lot of self-belief. He is not somebody who will get bogged down or perturbed by what’s been talked or written about him.”
All he needs is a little more love. Give him freedom, and he will fire.