Just a few wicketkeeping blunders by Rishabh Pant were enough for the spectators in Mohali to start missing MS Dhoni. The chants of “Dhoni, Dhoni” and the booing every time he missed a chance made Sunday evening a difficult time for the 20-year-old stumper. (Read in Bengali)
Pant missed two stumpings at key junctures during Australia’s record chase. The first was in the 39th over, when he missed what appeared to be a straightforward chance to dismiss Peter Handscomb. Five overs later, he would miss another stumping opportunity against a rampant Ashton Turner, off Yuzvendra Chahal’s bowling.
As the boisterous crowd made its feelings known, a rattled Pant missed a run-out chance in the same over, when he ironically tried to flick the ball from the back of his hand, a la Dhoni himself.
Pant’s childhood coach Tarak Sinha believes comparing his ward with a seasoned veteran like Dhoni was unfair.
“Such comparisons are cropping up because, like Dhoni, he (Pant) is also a wicketkeeper-batsman. But it’s unfair on him because it puts undue pressure for him to perform in a particular way, and be like Dhoni. He performs the best when his mind is free,” the seasoned coach said.
Teammate Shikhar Dhawan also came to Pant’s defence.
“Rishabh is a young bloke and like any other youngster, you have to give time to him. He is still finding his feet. You cannot compare Pant to Dhoni, given the experience he has having played over the years,” the opener said after the defeat.
Sinha takes one back to when Dhoni was taking his first steps in international cricket. “There’s a difference between the Pant of today and Dhoni 14-years-ago when he was making his way into the Indian team. Back then, he did not come with the kind of baggage like Pant has. There wasn’t any legendary wicketkeeper whom he was replacing. The guys back then were either Dinesh Karthik or Parthiv Patel, players younger to him. So, he (Dhoni) was free from the pressure and expectations that Pant is facing today,” he offers.
“Which keeper in the world hasn’t missed a catch or a stumping? Even Dhoni missed catches and stumpings at the start of his career. The good thing is that the selectors persisted with him and did not drop him after one season. He improved with time to become one of the greats of the game,” Sinha explains.
In MS’s shadow
Despite catching the eye in the IPL, Pant hasn’t had a long run in the Indian limited-overs team due to Dhoni’s presence. He has featured in just four ODIs and nine T20Is in two years. During this period, even when the selectors chose to rest Dhoni for a series, they would replace him with Karthik.
The doors to international cricket would finally open for Pant after Test-match specialist Wriddhiman Saha suffered a shoulder injury during the South Africa tour in January 2018. After a rather tepid start to his long-form career, Pant came into his own, both as a batsman and a wicketkeeper, in England and Australia. In essence, it was his performances in Test cricket that brought him back in the reckoning for the shorter formats. But he hasn’t done enough to quell his critics, who feel that apart from his shoddy keeping, his risky batting style too doesn’t inspire confidence.
Sinha, though, does not agree. “Most of the matches that he has played recently were in T20s, where he was asked to start playing his shots from the first ball.”
However, the coach’s observation doesn’t stand scrutiny. During the first T20I against New Zealand recently, India, in pursuit of 220, had lost openers Dhawan and Rohit Sharma and were 51/2 in 5.2 overs when Pant joined Vijay Shankar. The stage was set for the left-hander to explode; instead he plodded his way to just 4 runs from 13 deliveries before being nailed by left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner.
Do the recent performances in shorter formats rule the Roorkee lad out of contention from the upcoming World Cup? Sinha doesn’t think so. He believes Pant has a good chance of boarding that flight to England as the reserve wicketkeeper. The coach’s optimism notwithstanding, the selection panel has refrained from including an extra ‘keeper in the past two editions of the World Cup.
Going forward, Sinha feels another feasible option for the selectors would be to draft Pant as a floater in the middle order. While it’s true that India’s middle order is choc-a-bloc with stroke-makers like KL Rahul, Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav, Sinha observes that if any one of them has a couple of bad games or goes out of form, it would hand Pant an opportunity.
“Having him in the middle order will give them the firepower in the death overs. At the moment, we do have stroke-makers in the middle order, but that explosive big hitter is missing — someone who can push the score from 300 to 350. Pant has that ability,” Sinha adds.
Recently, captain Virat Kohli did drop a subtle hint that Pant was in the scheme of things when he stressed on the need for having a left-hander in the middle order.
The final ODI against Australia will be Pant’s final shot at redemption before the World Cup. He wouldn’t get a better setting than his home turf — the Ferozeshah Kotla — to assert himself in the 50-over format. If anything, he can be assured of more support than what he got in Mohali on Sunday.