Last ball of the 34th over of India’s innings on day one of the final Test against England at Edgbaston, when most batsmen in the somewhat precarious situation of 117/5 would have left alone with an eye on tea, Stuart Broad over-pitches to Rishabh Pant. What does Pant do? He gets his weight forward in a jiffy and finds the gap at extra cover for four.
That shot was perhaps the most orthodox shot played by Pant during his electric 146 at a strike-rate of 131 on Friday, a dramatic yet almost eerily expected fifth Test century that grabbed hold of India’s sodden innings and helped them to 338/7 after 73 overs.
We all know that Pant is unorthodox. An intoxicating maverick. He doesn’t much bother with what the scorecard says, what time of day it is or what the overhead clouds are doing. He backs himself to bat the way he likes, the way that has got him to 2000 Test runs in quick time. And this is what puts doubts in the minds of bowlers and opposing captains.
Like Adam Gilchrist, the wicketkeeper-batsman he is most often compared to, Pant is a brilliant, clean hitter of the cricket ball. Like Gilchrist, he prefers to cut, drive and swing over mid-on and midwicket. And like Gilchrist, he is also slightly technically loose when new to the crease but has that rare skill to motor around at a strike-rate of 90 even when the team situation is dire.
During his 146 from 111 balls, Pant dared to flourish and did so magnificently. He didn’t hold back. He cut, drove, pulled, swatted, shimmied, reverse-lapped and dinked for 111 deliveries of calculated madness, hitting 19 fours and four sixes. He entered with India 98/5 and left with India 320/6. This is what match-shifting players do.
Pant did not let Jack Leach, fresh off a ten-wicket haul against New Zealand at Headingley, settle into any sort of groove. He was off on his feet almost immediately, trying to unsettle the left-arm spinner, and succeeded in liberally hitting Jeach down the ground and through square leg. Leach’s second over cost 14 runs, with Pant going four, four and six in three continuous deliveries. Two overs, 21 runs for Leach.
That early attack from Pant spoilt Leach’s flight and disturbed his focus. He appeared wary to toss the ball up again, and this resulted in the ball sitting up for Pant to swing his arms and scythe. In the 61st over, having crossed three figures, Pant swatted Leach for two sixes and a four with sheer disdain. One of those sixes went about 25 rows back, with Pant losing one hand off the bat. It was Sehwag batting against Saqlain Mushtaq in Multan, Gilchrist versus Paul Adams in Cape Town. And it was also as if Pant was batting at one of the Sonnet Cricket Club net sessions at Delhi’s Sri Venkateswara College. See ball, hit ball and all that.
Part of the whole Pant madness is that his shot-making defies conventional cricket wisdom and, frankly, physics. You are not supposed to fall over flat on the pitch after whipping the ball between midwicket and square leg, or when you’ve walked across the stumps to dunk it over fine leg. You cannot be wrong-footed and falling forward while driving the ball into the covers. And yet there goes Pant, cheeky half-grin but yet almost apologetic, to whichever bowler he singles out.
You expected him to have some fun against James Anderson, because well, that’s what Pant has done before. And so out came the reverse paddle, just like did against Anderson in Ahmedabad last year for six over the slips. Except this one wasn’t timed anywhere as well, and fetched Pant two runs. But then Pant skipped out to Test cricket’s most successful fast bowler and drilled him high over his head, and admired the shot. Anderson looks cranky even when he’s in the middle of a top-quality five-wicket haul spell, so you can imagine what he felt when Pant was shimmying down the track.
The end came out of the blue. Joe Root tossed it up, slower and wider. Pant heaved and edged to the lone slip. Root roared and was mobbed. Pant removed his helmet as he walked off, flicked a stray lock of hair off his forehand and soaked in the applause from the Birmingham fans. India had 320 on the board, from the depths of 98/5 after lunch. The fastest Test 150 had been missed by some 16 deliveries, but damned if Pant minded. He had entertained at a frenetic pace, like only he can.
India finished 338/7, scoring at a more than five an over in the final two sessions. They racked up 164 runs in the last session, with Pant’s dazzling hundred the highlight. As tizzy as Pant left you feel while watching him bat, one batsman’s success is inextricably linked with the guy at the other end of those 22 yards. And on Friday in Birmingham, the role of Ravindra Jadeja in adding 222 runs in just under 40 overs cannot be understated. Where Pant thrilled, Jadeja too thrived but in his own way. He defended, left alone (very astutely, it has to be said) and, when he felt like it, played some pretty drives into the offside. Where Pant’s 146 was innovative and audacious, Jadeja’s 83* has been equally vital if nowhere near as thrilling.
“Pant came out to play a bit of Bazball, as everyone keeps calling it,” said England’s assistant coach Paul Collingwood after the day’s play. Well, no. Pant has been doing this for some time. England’s newfound approach under Brendon McCullum, best embodied by Jonny Bairstow recently, is what Pant has been doing for three years now.
This is a unique brand of cricketer. In 31 Test matches, Pant has five centuries and five scores in the nineties. Imagine for a moment that he had not dismissed himself in the nineties – out spooning to gully, slashing to point and so on – and this man could have been sitting on 10 hundreds in 31 Tests.
That, however, is Pant. Unfiltered, unfazed and … well, a little bit unreal.