There is an essential intrepid spirit to Rishabh Pant's batting, but it won't be enough for the 24-year-old to thrive across all formats.
Unlike the early period of the twenty-first century, India no longer have a shortage of wicketkeeper batsmen. Between the 1999/2000 tour of Australia and MS Dhoni’s first ODI in December 2004, they fielded ten wicketkeepers, and Dhoni was the eleventh. The audition was all because of finding someone who could be an excellent batsman, along with his big gloves behind the stumps.
But now, the ground scenario is very nearly the opposite. The BCCI has identified Rishabh Pant as their No. 1 ‘keeper across all three formats, and more notably, the board and the team management have been projecting the 24-year-old as the one who will be leading India on a full-time basis. Pant’s journey is progressing quite similar to Dhoni, whom he idolised while growing up.
Riding on a few exceptional knocks over the last couple of years, especially in SENA countries, Pant recently earned the Indian captaincy role, albeit it came accidentally after KL Rahul suffered a groin injury just at the 11th hour of the five-match T20I series against South Africa. Under him, India began with back-to-back defeats, and then, two big-margin victories before the series decider was washed out in Bengaluru. The results were quite synonymous with Pant’s batting, as almost no one can predict whether he unleashes himself, or brings out the disappointment.
On home soil at Arun Jaitley Stadium, Pant performed reasonably well in his first task as Indian captain. Coming at No. 4, he blazed away for a quickfire 16-ball 29, with the help of two sixes and two fours. But then, in the next three innings, his scores read seven-ball five, eight-ball six, and 23-ball 17 respectively.
A left-handed Indian middle-order batter, who has come into the mix after a long interval since the golden days when Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina used to take charge more often than not, Pant was supposed to be the toast of the South Africa series. But rather, the series brought wider repercussions for him, and safe to say, his struggles against the spinners who tried to bowl outside of his range, were clearly visible.
Still, Pant’s avid admirers might agree with the fact that the T20 format is not at all about consistency. It encourages batsmen to hit, rather than playing as an anchor, or in other words, staying in the middle for little impact. But that is justified for T20s, but what about the ODIs and Test cricket?
It can’t be denied Pant’s intensity of taking risks in red-ball cricket has worked quite nicely so far in his 30-match career. His aggregate of 1,920 runs at a strike rate of an exceptional 70.46 speaks volumes. But in ODIs, where he preferred to bat at the No. 5 role, his records are not so encouraging. From 22 innings (in 24 ODIs), he has accumulated 715 runs at 109.33, averaging a mere 32.5. Surely, it needs to go up, considering India’s talent pool.
Even at such a young age, Pant tore into numerous world-class bowlers without any fear. It helped him to get a load of followers from everywhere across the globe. But in the game of cricket, ever since IPL 2022, nothing is going so well for him.
Pant was heavily criticized due to his on-field decisions as Delhi Capitals (DC) two months ago, and it was again under scrutiny during the South Africa series. Perhaps he could have done better as a leader, perhaps not, but for both club and country, it looked like he was always under pressure, quite opposite to his earlier version where he used to rely on his natural free-flowing batting.
As the cricketing world is transforming, Pant is well aware of the fact that he has got the backing of BCCI and the team management at this point. However, if he fails to perform in the England tour, starting next month, there will be question marks around his place across all formats. Although he will stay in Tests because of doing wonders in that format already, his numbers in limited-overs cricket must improve. Otherwise, it won’t be a surprise if India do not include Pant in their playing XI in the upcoming T20 World Cup, scheduled to take place in Australia later this year.
India's cricketer-turned-commentator echoed the same about Pant in a chat with Star Sports, saying: "People expect that he (Pant) will come along and start hitting the ball for boundaries and sixes. That is something, which because of what he has performed over the last 3-4 years, people have come to expect, and therefore there is that disappointment. But what I think he needs to do, is introspect."
"What happens during captaincy often is that sometimes you are not thinking about your own game. You are thinking about the game of others – bowlers or batters. So you forget that there may be some technical issue with your own batting. And that is what he has to sit down and think. He has got 2 days. First and foremost, he will feel a lot better that India have won. So that little bit of pressure is off. It will give him a little bit of relief and he has got to think about his batting now”.
There are too many candidates in the country for the floater’s role. But Pant, from now on, must start working on getting the balance right, rather than ‘cricketainment.’ In the limited-overs cricket, India need someone in the middle-order who can be trusted, and Pant must fill that void as early as possible. Or else, someone will take his place away in no time, and in a country where the population is nearly 1.4 crore and there, in almost every street in fields, they worship cricket, it won’t be any surprise at all.
Hopefully, the situation won’t go that beyond but Pant, at the same time while elevating his boundary-hitting technique, must be mindful of his longevity at the crease to become a pure batsman. Only then, everything will be sorted.