The flannels have been put away for the time being; for the next two and a half months, a generous diet of white-ball, coloured-clothing action awaits India’s cricketers, leading up to the final of the World Test Championship against New Zealand in June in Southampton.
Friday’s first of five Twenty20 Internationals against England in Ahmedabad will kick off India’s final phase of preparation for the T20 World Cup in October-November. The nucleus firmly in place, most places sealed and most back-ups identified, plenty of work still remains over the next seven months before the hosts can be reasonably confident of mounting a strong challenge to regain the title they won in 2007.
It’s against this backdrop that Rishabh Pant’s reincarnation as a situationally-aware batsman and a wicketkeeper who his bowlers have started to trust, assumes enormous significance. Like his illustrious predecessor from Delhi, Virender Sehwag, the effervescent Pant would appear to be the perfect package to lord the limited-overs stage. Like Sehwag before him, however, Pant too has had his issues in both the 50- and 20-over formats, as much in front of the sticks as behind them.
It’s been 14 months since Pant last played a white-ball international of any hue. He has missed the last eight One-Day Internationals and nine Twenty20 Internationals, his travails with the big gloves and inconsistencies with the bat pitchforking KL Rahul to the crucial role of wicketkeeper-batsman. That’s almost certain to change now, Pant’s electric recent form making it practically impossible to ignore his claims any longer.
Admittedly, the said electric form has manifested itself in Test cricket. Since the start of 2021, the diminutive stumper has made at least a half-century in five of his last six Tests, most of them under tremendous pressure. As much as the volume of runs, what has stood out is the manner in which he has stacked them up.
Gone is the impetuosity of youth that once compelled him to attempt three strokes to each ball. There is no sign of the restless, impatient left-hander who felt obliged to tee off from the beginning, without giving himself time to settle in, to get a hang of the pitch, the conditions and the bowling. Pant 2.0 is almost unrecognisable from the earlier erratic version, but even as he has embraced responsibility, he has lost none of the flair or flamboyance that characterised his meteoric climb to national representation.
The template Pant has discovered since Sydney in January, when he took his time and then exploded without warning to send shivers down Aussie spines, is exactly what he will seek to adopt in the shorter formats as well. He has, significantly, another quiver in his arrow – the rare gift of being able to play bruising strokes from the off if the situation so demands. His new-found maturity and his wide range of strokes that includes the orthodox and the cheeky, the conventional and the mind-boggling, are a potent concoction Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri will no longer ignore.
Long before Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s exit from the international arena last August, India had embarked on a desperate quest for ‘finishers’. They did zero in on Hardik Pandya, but the Baroda all-rounder has spent too much time in the infirmary to instil the confidence that he is already a long-term successor to the legendary Jharkhandi. A fit Pandya at No. 5 or No. 6 is a precious commodity; a clean and effortless striker of the cricket ball, he is at his most dangerous at the death when, belying his lithe frame, he unleashes long balls at the drop of a hat. Imagine the carnage when Pandya has a mirror-image, a left-hander, for company.
It was in the hope that Pant’s natural aggression and cheekiness would allow him to organically develop as Dhoni’s successor – no one can really replace the former captain – that the team management and the think-tank plumped for the Delhi youngster even when he showcased reckless abandon. An unfortunate blow to the head during the Mumbai ODI against Australia in January last year, and the subsequent success of the Rahul experiment behind the stumps, relegated Pant to the fringes and then out of the white-ball squads. A miserable run in the IPL for Delhi Capitals in the UAE, only marginally salvaged by a sparkling half-century in the final against Mumbai Indians, seemed to vindicate the call to bench him, until Pant decided to let his bat and the big gloves do the talking in Test cricket.
Admirable as his evolution as a dependable batsman has been, it’s Pant’s dramatic transformation as wicketkeeper that boggles the mind. After all, his batting abilities were never in question, only his awareness, shot-selection and an understanding of what not to do, rather than what to do. When it came to his keeping, though, question marks abounded. Pant didn’t seem a natural, he was ill at ease in India where unpredictable turn and dodgy bounce were proving to be so much of a riddle that India were forced to employ different stumpers at home (Wriddhiman Saha) and away.
Though a bull-headed work-ethic not everyone believed he had in him, Pant has established himself as a top gloveman in home conditions too. He was consistently little short of brilliant on very difficult pitches in Chennai and Ahmedabad while standing up to R Ashwin and Axar Patel, confounding critics with supreme footwork, movement, and surety and softness of hands. From this unexpected metamorphosis stems the conviction that Pant has truly turned the corner. He could so easily have chosen to bask in the exuberant glory of his munificent batting; by throwing himself whole-heartedly to improving as a wicketkeeper, Pant has exhibited a fierce flame of ambition that would do Dhoni proud.
Pant has done more than enough in the last two and a half months to merit a long rope in his white-ball resurrection. Truth to tell, he might neither need nor covet that luxury, which is both heartening and exciting.