This is Rishabh Pant's world. He's falling down on the ground pulling a pacer. He's beaten with flight, turn and bounce, yet soon he dispatches the ball against the spin into the stands. Sprinting in the final moments of the game. Trying to finish the match with chutzpah and daredevilry of his own.
Pant turns cricket into a theater. A theater with an audience in millions. And he’s the entertainer. It’s a box-office show. Not since Virat Kohli has an Indian captured the imagination of people like this. Pant’s giving near heart attacks to the team management. Rohit Sharma is putting his hands on his head. But inside the mind of the 23-year-old, all that matters is crossing the line. The line, which hasn't been crossed since 1988. The line, if crossed, with the audacity to be talked about for ages. Make demi-gods and heroes out of cricket players. It's day five, we are at the Gabba. Last time, a team needed Gordon Greenidge, Vivian Richards, Desmond Haynes, Richie Richardson, Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Patrick Patterson, to win a Test in what is Australia’s fortress.
It's a venue that Tim Paine recalls when all hell breaks loose. "See you at Gabba'' is Australia's equivalent to Delhi's, "Tu Jaanta Nahi Mera Baap Kaun Hai?" (You don't know who my father is). No matter how deep-end the trouble is, closing your eyes, taking a deep breath and imaging Gabba does it for Australia. But, here's Pant. From singing 'Spiderman Spiderman' to batting like a superhero, he's onto something special. He punches down the ground. The ball reaches the boundary. He has done it. Gabba has been breached. India have won 2-1. Pant is a national sensation. Ravi Shastri can't stop hugging him enough. Such is the enormity of the moment.
Pant's travails with the gloves
But two days have passed since the Gabba Test. Dust has settled down. We are back to our senses. And the English challenge is approaching. As much as everyone rejoiced in Pant's batting heroics, one can't delay the inevitable for long. Let’s address the elephant in the room - Pant's wicket-keeping.
To put things into perspective, according to a CricViz article, "Pant’s keeping is the second-worst in the world since his debut. He drops more catches than everyone other than Mushfiqur Rahim and Shane Dowrich, and costs his side more runs than almost anyone. Pant drops about as many as he catches when it comes to keeping against spin."
To simply put it, Pant's keeping at the Test level is unacceptable for a top side and now he has started bottling up dollies as seen in the MCG and the SCG Tests respectively. And it won't be sustainable to have him as a gloveman that too in Tests simply because he scores more as eventually it will catch up with the team. But Rishabh Pant's batting heroics in Australia gives us a fair indication that he's still good enough to play as a specialist batsman.
The Pant X-factor
Before anything, let’s see how he has fared in SENA Tests, which is the biggest marker to assess an Indian batsman given how well they fare at other places. This is how Indian batsmen have done in the last five years:
Even if we look beyond statistics, there is no one quite like Rishabh Pant in India's middle-order. He gives a cutting edge to the line-up as for him, taking the game to the bowlers and playing aggressively comes naturally. Going down the track to smash spinners is as customary to him as a front-foot defense for others. With players like him, there isn't a score that can't be chased down in Tests. He might not win Tests single-handedly, which no one does, but can be a decisive factor by playing a knock that sets up the game or finishes a tough chase if given a platform. And both the scenarios were on display in SCG and Gabba respectively.
India were in a spot of bother at 102 for 3 at the start of the fifth day of the SCG Test. They were chasing 407 runs. Even a draw was looking an arduous task. But here comes Pant, he makes 97 off 118 with 12 fours and three sixes and by the time he perishes, India are 250 for 4. From a difficult draw, suddenly there were hopes for an improbable win. With 157 needed off 53 odd overs, a flat wicket on offer, if fit batsmen were there, India had a chance and that's what he brings to the plate. When all else are trying to survive, he has the ability to thrive and put back pressure back on the opposition.
Similarly at the Gabba, India needed 100 off the last 20 overs and that too with a brand new ball as 80 overs were done. Pujara got out, leaving Pant with an out-of-form Mayank Agarwal and two inexperienced batsmen who will be playing their second and third Test innings respectively with a 9,10 and 11, all as good as no.11. The Test had a DRAW written all over it. But Pant had some other plans. In risk-free manner, he scores 55 off 54 and helps India win with a contribution of 33 off 47 at the expense of three wickets from others. But he was the man calming others and orchestrating a tricky chase. He finishes with 89* off merely 138 deliveries.
In the last two Tests his partnerships with Pujara also showcased how his batting helps the batsman at the other hand. When he starts getting into his element, the things he does takes the opposition out of sync. Suddenly, we see someone like Pujara also cashing in on loose deliveries with the pressure created by Pant from the other end. These days in Test cricket, pitches have become more bowler-friendly and bowlers have become more effective than previously. To let them dictate terms is waiting for an inevitable death. Someone like Pant doesn't allow the bowlers the luxury to keep hitting the same line and lengths and helps his team gain momentum and the batsman batting alongside him a breather.
Temperament and Maturity
These two things have always been in question with Pant. But the Australia tour proved otherwise. After a whirlwind SCG knock, where he hammered bowlers all around the park, the Brisbane Test proved he can bat in other gears too. The Gabba 89* was a calculated assault, where he didn't manufacture strokes but played on the merit of the ball, mostly, leaving the balls outside off-stump, defending the ball on stumps and playing percentage shots. As enthralling as SCG knock was, it isn't sustainable at this level if consistency is an aim. Now that Pant showed he has both the gears is what gives us a fair idea about his maturity and know-how of his game as a batsman.
Temperament wise too the 23-year-old stood-out. From being India's no.1 gloveman across formats, 2020 saw him first losing his wicket-keeping position in limited-overs format, a poor IPL and then axing from the white-ball squads itself. He was made second-choice to Wriddhiman Saha in the first Test despite a ton in the warm-up game. He had the worst year of his young career. There were questions on his fitness. Was under pressure throughout the series with his lackluster keeping. It couldn't have gotten worse for him. You either give up or rise up in such situations, he did the latter, which shows he's a horse for the long race with the temperament of a great cricketer.
Ageing team and possibilty of two-wicket-keepers
Four of India's first-choice top six batsmen in Tests - Rohit Sharma (33), Cheteshwar Pujara (32), Virat Kohli (32) and Ajinkya Rahane (32) - are in their 30s and not getting any younger. Given Rohit and Virat's hectic white-ball schedule, how long they play is something that would be interesting to see. And Pant can be a long-term investment in this sense as well. He has a good 10-12 years of cricket ahead of him and given his enormous talent, there's no reason why he can't play consistently for India.
And the concept of two wicket-keepers playing in a Test XI isn't new. England play Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow regularly. New Zealand do the same with Tom Latham and BJ Watling while Sri Lanka have Kusal Perera and Niroshan Dickwella. If a keeper-batsman can add as much value as a specialist batter, there shouldn't be any issue. Admittedly, Pant isn't the most athletic fielder but then even R Ashwin and Pujara make it to the side because of their primary skills, why not a potential match-winner like Pant?.
Even if we compare Rishabh Pant to someone like Hanuma Vihari, who will be his direct competition for a place in the middle-order when he gets fit, and in case, India doesn’t find the left-hander suitable for keeping, Pant's numbers dazzle.
The southpaw averages 43.52 in Tests overall in comparison to Vihari's 32.84, having played six more innings than him. Even in terms of away record, Pant (39.30) has a better average than Vihari (34.11). Vihari has struck just one ton while Pant has two already and batting higher in the order, and also showed how he can take his game to the next level if given more time in the middle with ample backing from the dressing room. There are compelling reasons for India to consider Pant as a specialist batsman given his mediocre to poor wicket-keeping.