As Rishabh Pant turned around after celebrating his century, he saw Tim Paine waving at him. Presuming the Australian captain was going to congratulate him, he walked towards him with a sheepish smile, only that Paine gestured he was not waving at him but one of his fielders. Pant realised the joke, over the last month he has learnt to second-guess him, and grinned. Later as they walked back after India’s declaration—at a gobsmacking 622/7 with Pant unconquered on 159—they had what seemed like another round of light-hearted banter. They have become good friends— Paine posted a picture on Instagram of Pant holding his daughter, after the baby-sitting banter.
Both seemed to laugh their guts out on something trivial. It’s exactly what Pant brings to the table apart from his primary-lightness amidst the serious business of Test cricket, a touch of comic relief on long hard days under the blistering sun. It’s spontaneous, sometimes witty, but it has made him popular among the Australian public, so much so that he will be the most missed Indian player after the tour.
Seeing the funny side of life, Pant says, is an occupational hazard, rather a distraction from the toil of keeping stumps. “That is also one of the methods to keep yourself positive, to keep yourself busy. When you are fielding for a long time, everyone’s body does get tired but you need to find a way to keep yourself positive and stay concentrated. My method is this, and it works for me, that’s why I am doing it,” he says.
Imagine a wicket-keeper’s life, while bowlers and fielders can occasionally drift, keepers can’t afford their focus to waver even for a split second, a spilled catch or stumping or a bye can lead to inexorable scrutiny.
There’s another reason he always wears a happy face and sees the funny side of life-because being happy gets the reflexes going. It was a philosophy his childhood coach, Tarak Sinha, had drilled into him when he was young. “Sir bolte hain ke khush rehne mein reflexes ache kaam karte hain,” he had once told in an interview.
The same streak of positivity permeates into his batting too, his instinct is to attack and he’s proficient at that. And he knows that too. But sometimes, when you’re teething in, young batsmen are often caught up between instinct and affected decorum. Thoughts like you are playing Test match and hence you need to decelerate your scoring rate creep in, in the end you end up doing neither. In England he tried and failed, before he unshackled the self-demons by striking a middle path during the hundred at the Oval.
Instant impact player
Since then, he hasn’t revised or rethought his methods. Such batsmen, even if they could be inconsistent, and hence prone to criticism, could be impactful. His skipper Virat Kohli admires and trusts such instant-impact players. On Friday, Pant reinforced several facets of his game with calculate enterprise. First he showed that contrary to public perception, he isn’t a brainless bludgeoner of the ball. Maybe, it’s because he was hyped up that way, embellished further by his 48-ball hundred in Ranji Trophy last year and IPL exploits. But he isn’t a one-dimensional batsman. He takes calculated risks, but he can equally grind, graft and kick on the run-rate, a virtue attested by the fact that of his first hundred runs, only 32 came from boundaries. As many as 51 were hoarded through singles, accrued in typically street-smart ways, like when you drive through the clogged road of Moti Bagh, the suburb of Delhi he grew up after shifting from native Roorkee to purse cricket. Some of his strokes look ungainly, like the innocuous half-pull, half-flick shots for singles, or the drag-flick sweeps. Like a drag-flicker in hockey, he kneels and brooms the ball through fine leg.
Whatever the methods or the aesthetics or his shots be, he’s canny of pulling it off.
When batting with Pujara, as he did with KL Rahul in Oval, he exhibited that he has the required temperament and technique to support a top-order batsman. He dwelt on it: “The main thing was that I was playing with a batsman this time. Most of the time, when I got a start, I was playing with the tail. If I am batting with the tail, I have to think differently because most of the time, I have to score the runs. But when you are batting with a batsman, that’s a different thing,” he said.
For instance, in seven innings this series, only thrice has he batted with a specialist batsman for more than 10 overs. This, in turn instills belief in the top-order batsmen too, the sheer awareness that there’s someone he can trust and hence needn’t alter his game.
For this very reason that some of his bigger knocks have come in the company of the top-six, his efforts are often devalued. Even this hundred could be belittled by alleging that it came when Pujara was batting alongside him, the bowlers were tired and the pitch flat. Even if you take his 159 out of the Indian innings, India’s total is still respectable. But he guaranteed that the match is out of Australia’s bounds. The longer he batted, the more deflated the Australians became and the reality that the match and series is beyond them sunk in. As importantly, in the broader scheme, India has unearthed a wicket-keeper batsman who can influence matches with the willow since Dhoni’s departure. Wriddhiman Saha is no slouch, but hasn’t looked comfortable against facing fast bowling outside the country.
The series in Australia last time around was a great platform, but he froze. So he did in subsequent tours to England and South Africa. In SENA countries, he averages 14 in four Tests. Pant has one each in England and Australia, which not even Dhoni can’t brag and only Jeff Dujon has ever managed. Dinesh Karthik has inexplicably failed to live up to his reputation and potential, while Parthiv has been gutsy but not influential. Unlike all of them, Pant has that X factor, which Adam Gilchrist swears by.
“We probably all expected him to bat aggressively from ball one but he showed he can build an inning and then by the end of it allowed himself to play with all the freedom that we know he’s got,” he said on Fox Sports.
His keeping is still a study in progress-he dropped Usman Khawaja, a sitter-but India have stumbled on a wicket-keeper-batsman they’d always wished they had. His tally of 350 runs this series is second only to Pujara, he’s left Kohli and Rahane behind. Equally significant is his lively presence— the joie de vivre makes a gruelling Test match feel lighter.