When the news of Rishabh Pant's selection as the captain of the Delhi Vijay Hazare Trophy side, which comprises experienced stars like Gautam Gambhir, Ashish Nehra, and Shikhar Dhawan, broke out, many people looked at it with skepticism. However, amid all these, Pant is keeping his calm.
How could a player of such limited experience have been selected as the skipper of such an experienced side? Wasn’t it too early to give him the responsibility? Amidst all the talk, Pant, though, has decided to keep his calm and wants to only learn from the seniors in every possible opportunity. Such has been his modesty and demeanor that he easily plays the second fiddle to his more illustrious seniors in the dressing room.
“Until you have the seniors like Gauti Bhai, Ashu (Ashish Nehra) Bhai, and Shikhar Bhai around you, you really don’t have to be too worried about the captaincy. Yes, I am excited to lead the senior team for the first time but at the same time, I know that we have to perform as a unit. Then only, we can win,” Pant told SportsCafe in an exclusive chat at the Barabati Stadium in Cuttack.
This selection was not entirely uncommon, though given he has already represented the country at the senior level thanks to a path-breaking year in the latest edition of the Ranji Trophy where within the half-way stage, he had already set the world on fire with 799 runs from seven innings, a highest of 308, four hundreds, and one fifty at an average of 114.14. His strike-rate was an astonishing 113.01.
People stood up and took notice of the youngster, and the big moment came for the southpaw when the selection committee chaired by MSK Prasad selected him for the T20I series against England. In the third match at Bangalore, Pant got a chance to make his senior international debut.
Speaking about getting the debut cap, Pant said, “Indeed it was a proud feeling. On a personal point of view, everyone wants to represent their country at the highest level and it was no different for me as well. Playing in front of a packed-house in Bangalore was really a nice feeling. My parents were too proud of me and so are my coaches. That was the biggest takeaway for me from the India selection.”
Before the start of the match, Pant was supposed to be nervous. How couldn’t he be? He was playing in front of the huge Indian crowds for the first time against a strong ODI side. He was also playing amongst the seniors like MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli.
But, with steely reserve, Pant walked on to the ground with Dhoni already in the middle. Thanks to some brilliant middle-order batting by Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh, India were at a comfortable position of 177/4. He heaved his bat across the line and smashed Tymal Mills for a four. Nerves were down. India got 202 runs on the board at the end of the innings. Yuzvendra Chahal ended the formality and his six-wicket haul ensured that India had won the game at a canter and also won the series 2-1. The jubilation on the face of Pant was all the more palpable in the post-match presentation.
For any youngster, spending time with the legends like Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli is no less than amazing. With Dhoni having given up the limited-overs captaincy, Pant had an opportunity to extract the knowledge from one of the finest limited-over keepers of all-time, and as he said he grabbed that with both the hands.
“Mahi Bhai and Virat Bhai have backed me all throughout the tour. They were very mixing and made me comfortable. The best thing about them was that they knew what to expect and made everyone aware of the individual responsibilities. Mahi Bhai, of course, apna ek level bana liya hai (has set a benchmark of his own) and it was wonderful sharing a single dressing room with them,” Pant said.
There is a shade of Dravid in the ways Pant speaks - candid, honest but with full consciousness of words coming out of his mouth. Pant counts himself extremely fortunate to have the man as their guiding light, someone who has embodied everything that is pure and correct about cricket. Dravid’s astute cricketing mind and his guidance in the India Under-19 set-up and at the Delhi Daredevils camp in the IPL was one of the reasons behind Pant’s success.
“Rahul Sir was more like a mentor for us. He always stays calm and believes in the youngsters and made us comfortable. That is his greatest quality,” he said.
From many of the positives that IPL has given to Indian cricket, perhaps the most important is that it has become a pipeline of progression from the Under-19 to the senior team for the youngsters. Under-19 players now need to prove themselves in the IPL in order to get selected for the Indian national team.
So, how much has the IPL helped him to grow as a cricketer? “Very much,” he said after taking a deep breath. “See, in the IPL, we get to see a lot of international cricketers and that was an education in itself. When you observe an international cricketer’s work ethics and preparation, you can take a leaf out of it and can execute in your cricket.”
While the fame and adulation from the IPL and the Ranji Trophy are well-deserved, sterner tests awaits for the youngster in the future. However, Pant is not looking too far ahead and has his eyes set on the ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy. He chuckles when I said he was perhaps not born when Nehra had made his India debut and now he is leading a side in which Nehra is playing. He said, “See brother, I have already told you that I am still learning from them. (Smiles) They are the superstars.”
Saying this, Pant went back to do his keeping drill. But not before leaving me thinking about his ability to understand the importance of mental strength in an ever-evolving era of the sport. If he can keep this originality, no doubt, the big shoes of MSD will be filled nicely.