Updated: January 22, 2022 12:11:05 pm
The start was chaotic; the end was frantic. But between the beginning and the end, Rishabh Pant rattled out 85 runs off 71 balls, a ferocious knock that underlined his tremendous yet often infuriating gifts; defended the ceaseless trust the team management has invested in him, and offered a peep into his destructibility without being overly destructive or self-destructive.
He destructs; he self destructs too. Both are the pages of the same story; to appreciate the destructiveness of his batting, one has to accommodate his self-destructiveness too. You remember his breathtaking shots; you remember his gut-wrenching ones too. But on days when he is more destructive and less self-destructive, he raises the roof, shoots up the temperature, transcends the surface, makes the best bowlers look silly and significantly, puts the team in match-winning positions in a burst of boundary barrage. Like on Friday, when most of his colleagues struggled to cope with the sluggishness of the surface and the collective utility of South Africa’s spinners, he tamed and subdued them with utter ease. His batting is akin to a racy read-at-one-go short story. Predictable to an extent, but unputdownable nonetheless. You leaf through the pages; just as Pant heaves and hacks the hapless bowlers. You’re into the story straightaway; there’s no elaborate canvas-weaving. He nearly got out twice in the first ball—an inside edge rolled out to safety, a cross-batted swipe. He almost got his captain out soon after—a comical mix up made to look less foolish by the farcical confusion of South Africa’s fielders.
Followed perhaps the least happening seven-ball sequence off his innings—four dot balls, a single and two more dot balls. Then, like an early twist in the story, he slouched on one knee, bent his body and powerfully, almost disdainfully, slog-swept Keshav Maharaja for a six. It was the first sprout of rain, and then it never stopped, like a torrential downpour in monsoon.
The bowlers turn genuinely clueless—you could read the resigned and hapless expression on their face. Tabraiz Shamsi, the left-arm wrist-spinner who wanted to be a magician, stood like an exposed conjurer, his magic waning. He was plundered for five fours and a six. To put the context in perspective, the rest of the Indian batsmen managed just a solitary four off him. Another number to crunch and brood: He knocked him for 30 runs in 18 balls. The rest eked out 27 in 36 balls. Keshav Maharaj resembled a man who was just mugged in a busy street. He was creamed for a six and a four. Aiden Markram was given a reality check about his off-spin bowling aptitude, while medium-pacer Andile Phehlukwayo was made to realise that his staple of slower-balls and cutters are fodder to him. Pant picked him to unfurl the most audacious of his shots—a scorching sweep through backward square-leg, a hot blend of power and timing.
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The problem when he finds this rampaging groove is that he cannot stop himself and shuffle into a less frantic beat. Perhaps, he shouldn’t so that his game remains untampered, but had he tempered his aggression a bit at that juncture, he could have registered his first hundred in this format, and perhaps even taken India into an unassailable total. Instead, in the uncontrollable adrenaline rush of the moment, he came down the track and mis-hit the ball to the long-on fielder. The game was just in the 33rd over, and even by postmodern standards, a time to consolidate. Maybe, with exposure, he would turn wiser and nurture that ability to cool down just as he heats up.
But his explosiveness is a rare commodity in Indian cricket. There are stroke-makers around him, but not someone armed with his ability to explode impromptu and change the course of the game in a trice. Here is someone who can quickly size up the conditions and counterpunch, dishevel the plans of the bowlers and opposition. A case in point is that after a while, South Africans gave up on him, and they were just looking to limit the damage by setting defensive fielders. Not that such measures deterred Pant.
No one since Virender Sehwag had India possessed such raw exuberance in hitting boundaries. His batsmanship has not yet reached the exalted heights of Sehwag, but the spark dwells in him. Besides, the tempo affords more time for the rest—most of them like to bide their time to settle in and their scoring pattern is a progressive graph rather than a sudden spurt. Like how his burst gave Rahul the luxury to rediscover his fluency. Men like him and Sehwag, apart from being match-winners, let others flourish around them. Pant pursues risks, so KL Rahul or Virat Kohli needn’t. He doesn’t pile pressure on his partner by piling up dot balls either.
Quite simply, there are few others like him around, apart from Hardik Pandya, who is half the utility player if he’s not fit to bowl. And with the promise to be as rare a species in Indian cricket as MS Dhoni was.
Unlike Tests, you could say that he has not yet cracked the ODI code. In fairness, these are still his early days (just 20 games) in this format, and he would only ripen with experience as well as his own failures. Forget the hurried starts and hasty endings, the hideous dismissals and the heart-in-the-mouth moments, when he gets going, watching him is akin to reading a racy thriller. Unputdownable.
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