THERE WAS no apter a metaphor of the sluggishness of the relaid Chepauk wicket than the Keemo Paul bouncer in the 16th over that took an eternity to reach Rohit Sharma. It was like the ball took a brief nap before it reached Sharma, impatiently waiting on the back-foot to unfurl his favourite stroke. So baffled was even the most crushing executor of the stroke in contemporary white-ball cricket that he eventually played a half-hearted pull to short fine-leg. It wasn’t even an intended slower bouncer, but a medium-pacer’s routine bouncer, the pace drained by the pitch.
Sharma’s hesitation was understandable, he had seen his two in-form colleagues, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli, devoured by the slowness of the surface. Then Sharma overestimated the slowness of the strip that Sheldon Cottrell’s nailed him with a quick bouncer, hurrying him into a miscued pull. It’s in these adverse circumstances that Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant engineered a remarkable rescue mission, battling their instincts and cravings, fighting their inner demons and demonstrating an unseemly composure, thus furnishing hope of ending India’s anxious quest of middle-order stability.
It’s preposterous to assert that India have solved the middle-order puzzle based on a singular piece of proof. Nonetheless, there’s hope in Pant and Iyer, not as much as in the number of runs they made, but in the manner they constructed their respective knocks. These are virtues that define No 4s and No 5s, the diversity of the situations they’re plighted to bat — they have to straddle the enforcer-accumulator-executioner roles, sometimes switching between the three in the same match.
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Enforcing and executing, they are quite skilled we know. But questions hovered over their ability to accumulate and adapt to the sluggish wickets. both might have encountered, batted and made runs on similarly turgid surfaces in domestic cricket, but how they tamed the unusually slow strip, and the contrasting methods they sought, formed the crux of the batting narrative. Weave in the background of uncertainty around their spots, it could be called a story of redemption. Pant has been admonished for one imprudent stroke too many, for his always-on-the-fifth-gear ways. Iyer has been mocked, in certain quarters, as a one-stroke wonder, armed with just a lofted drive over long-on, that he lacked the famed grit of the Mumbai school batting.
But criticisms, it seemed, only fuelled them up. It was a no-nonsense, no-frills partnership, each in their own bubble — so focused they were that they barely exchanged glances or words. The only piece of advice Iyer gave Pant was to bat straight, which he resolutely stuck to in the initial stages of what turned out to be his highest score yet in this format. Iyer, who began in brisk fashion, embraced the old-fashioned tip-and-run ploy. Contemporary middle-order batsmen, these days, prefer big strokes, the Eoin Morgans of the world, but on slow surfaces as these, going retro breeds success.
The key for Pant was to remain unprovoked — at times, he couldn’t resist the occasional swipes, but creditably he abstained from it. He sized up the pitch and plotted the boundary outlets. A sweetly-timed sweep and an outrageous leg-glance stood out, the former reminiscent of Tendulkar and the latter, so unique in rendition that the stroke, if he continues to unfurl, could be termed the Pant glance.
The standout feature of the sweep was how he controlled and decelerated the bat-swing as his front-knee knelt into the shot. There was a bit of premeditation, but when he realised he was early into the shot, he paused, waiting the ball to reach him and then twirled his bat, guiding the ball over the short fine-leg fielder. The balance was impeccable, which is ironic as he seems imbalanced, almost falling over whenever he goes leg-side.
The leg-glance risks the description of the most unaesthetic leg-glance ever played. He stood static at the crease, just lifting his right heel a fraction, and slapped the ball finely to the ropes. In a way, more leg-slap than leg-glance. He was more emphatic and enterprising against spinners, shimmying down the track, meeting the ball on the full, taking the pitch out of the equation, and hefting them straight with his raw strength. The Windies spinners didn’t quite have the guile to flummox him in flight. In the end, it was the slowness of the pitch that nipped his knock from blooming to a devastating hundred, but that he still scored 71 runs at better than a run-a-ball clip (off 69) on this pitch underlined his redoubtable utility.
At the other end, Iyer essayed a treatise on anchoring, dusting up an art that’s becoming progressively archaic even in Test cricket. When Sharma perished, Iyer was 26 off 34 deliveries, batting with freedom and authority. But with Pant, he was keener to preserve wickets. His next 10 runs came off 22 deliveries, before he gradually started shifting gears and accelerating, tucking into anything that was marginally short and ticking away the score with singles and twos, running for 44 off his 70 runs.
The shot that shone the most was not the lofted drive but the cut, which’s ill-advised on slow wickets. But Iyer was proficient — rising and going down with the degree of bounce like all great cutters — that he hardly mistimed one. The biggest takeaway of their alliance was that they scored while curbing their A-game, suggesting that an exciting fire-and-ice combination is blossoming.