Make what you like of Rishabh Pant’s frenetic, ballsy approach to batting in Test cricket, but the question that needs to be asked is: what is the limit to this guy’s skill?
On day two of the day-night Test match between India and Sri Lanka in Bangalore, Pant walked out at the fall of Virat Kohli and proceeded to take the sharply turning surface out of the picture en route to his country’s fastest Test fifty, off 28 deliveries. Where Kohli had more reason to feel aggrieved about the pitch and his bad luck after he was for the second time in this Test dismissed lbw when playing back to a grubber, Pant used his feet immediately to carve, drive, loft and heave boundaries. It was madness, and it was exhilarating.
On day one, during which 16 wickets fell and 338 runs were scored, with the ball turning square already, Shreyas Iyer smacked ten fours and four sixes during what is, without a doubt, the innings of the match. He should, rightfully, be adjudged with the match honours for that exceptionally calculated and gutsy batting display. During that innings, Iyer found assistance from Pant who provided some fun with 39 off 26 balls, a similar knock as today’s before he made too much room to a delivery that spun in sharply and hit the stumps.
Given a second chance to bat, Pant applied the same approach and got a few more runs. It speaks of his approach to Test cricket on such surfaces where survival is not easy and instincts are often the difference. Where Rohit Sharma and Hanuma Vihari groped and felt for spinning deliveries and Kohli made the mistake of playing too deep in the crease, Pant said ‘stuff this’ and like Iyer on day one, used his feet to manufacture quick runs.
As he had done during his breezy, counter-attacking 39 on the first day, Pant wasted no time in dancing out to Sri Lanka’s spinners to go aerial in search of boundaries. Fielders went back, and Pant cleared them. Slightest errors in length were pounced on. Suranga Lakmal, in his last Test, come back into the attack at 5:50pm on Sunday evening. Without a sighter, Pant charged out and slapped him through extra cover for four. Iyer, while punching gloves with his partner, had a big grin on his face. He knew very well that attacking on this type of surface has its merits, having dazzled on day one with 92. But he was also just caught up in enjoying the rush that Pant provides.
Just after his record half-century, Pant swung across the line at the left-arm spinner Praveen Jayawickrama and was out. Once again, he lost balance. Once again, one hand came off the bat. Once again, Pant looked dejected. Once again, he got a rousing ovation as he trudged off. His contribution of 50 from 31 deliveries, with seven fours and a couple sixes, on a tough track to bat on had nullified Sri Lanka’s strikes and driven India upwards and upwards to the extent that their second innings turned into a matter of remorseless bullying.
Pant will cop flak for his approach when it does not pay off, such as we saw in South Africa when he toe-ended an attempted lofted shot to mid-off and, horrifically, made room to step out to Kagiso Rabada when not yet off the mark and nicked off to the wicketkeeper. But, as we saw from him during that same tour, he can produce counter-attacking hundreds of rare skill. He is a maverick, a man unto his own. But, take notice, the infuriating days are fewer than the intoxicating. And his wicketkeeping keeps getting better. That somewhat stocky, podgy frame conceals exceptional athleticism.
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Cricket’s storied history has had many players whose charisma crossed out logic. Pant is one of them, and yet uniquely his own person. He might not have had to work at being special like Ian Botham or Brian Lara, but Pant is indeed special. He has the team’s backing, most importantly, and this has allowed him to flourish.
He has featured in 30 of the 38 Tests India have played since his debut in 2018 and averages 40.85. From these 30 Tests, Pant has struck 44 sixes and 205 fours. The only two batsmen to hit 100 sixes in Tests, Brendon McCullum and Adam Gilchrist – not without notice, wicketkeepers both – needed 101 and 96 matches respectively to do so. Pant’s three overseas hundreds (England, Australia, South Africa) are three more than any other Indian wicketkeeper ever managed.
In just 30 Test matches, Pant has left an indelible mark on India’s quest to be the best touring team from the country. May he continue to radiate. Test cricket is better for it.