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Sunday, April 11, 2021

India vs England 4th Test: Rishabh Pant – A hundred… and much more

England were in control, but Rishabh Pant’s breath-taking hundred seizes the moment and prompts comparison with past greats.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Ahmedabad |
Updated: March 6, 2021 7:24:07 am
Rishabh Pant celebrates his third Test century during the fourth Test against England. (BCCI)

Adam Gilchrist used to do this for Australia in an all-conquering team. Rishabh Pant’s Test career is still in its infancy and he has a long way to go to sit alongside his idol. But over the last three months, his contribution to the Indian team has been Gilchrist-esque.

Opponents used to run into Gilchrist if they dismissed the Australian top order under Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting. Opponents, as Australia and England have learnt the hard way, run into Pant now, when India’s top order falls cheaply. On a day when James Anderson and Ben Stokes inspired England to play for pride, Pant’s scintillating hundred deflated them. It took the hosts to 294/7 at stumps, 89 ahead of Joe Root’s men, and in control of proceedings.

His 97 in Sydney, that raised hopes of an improbable victory, was scored after India had lost three wickets for 102 runs. His match-winning 89 not out in Brisbane was a virtual lone-ranger following the departure of Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara. No match is over until Pant is out.

In the grand scheme of things, the significance of the left-hander’s 118-ball 101 on Friday went beyond the Motera boundary. If his performance Down Under made him un-droppable even in home conditions where India hitherto had preferred a better wicketkeeper, the innings he played on Day 2 took him to stardom. Virat Kohli is no longer the lone batting star in the Indian Test team. Pant has arrived. Kohli’s rush down the dressing-room stairs to applaud his young charge gave the century a starry overtone.

Performing in a crunch situation

India were 146/6 at one stage and struggling. England had applied the choke since morning and wickets followed. The tourists were one wicket away from gaining ascendency in the fourth Test. But they surrendered to Pant’s brilliance. Washington Sundar, too, rose to the occasion and remained unbeaten on 60 at stumps. But in a 113-run seventh-wicket partnership, he was the support cast. In no way did it devalue the effort of a 21-year-old, playing only his fourth Test and showing maturity beyond his years. Pant, though, was box office.

His innings offered a throwback to MS Dhoni’s 148 against Shoaib Akhtar and Co at Faisalabad in 2006. Then again, that innings came on the heels of a Rahul Dravid century and a VVS Laxman 90 on a pitch that resembled a highway.

The Motera pitch for the fourth Test had a lot more for the bowlers. It is too early to compare Pant with his mentor – the youngster still takes batting and ‘keeping advice from the former India captain. But finally, more than six years after Dhoni hung up his Test boots, the Indian team has a worthy successor. “He (Pant) seems to be doing the job for us. He is more than ready, I guess,” Rohit Sharma said at the post-day press conference.

This was Pant’s third Test century. His batting record in winning causes before this game read: 11 matches and 600 runs at an average of 40. On Friday, his potentially match- and series-winning innings could add to it.

How fortunes change

Life was different for Pant only about four months ago. He was dropped from India’s white-ball set-up. Wriddhiman Saha was preferred over him in the first Test in Adelaide. 36 all out in that game somewhat forced the team management to bring him back to the side to bolster the batting. A tally of 274 runs in three matches and two game-changing innings made him all but indispensable. In seven matches since the second Test in Australia, Pant has scored 544 runs. His ‘keeping on turning pitches during the ongoing series has attested serious progression. By dint of his performance, he has made his way back to India’s limited-overs team. Across formats, Pant is now one of the first names on the team sheet.

During a conversation with this paper a few weeks ago, Pant’s personal coach Tarak Sinha was recounting the advice he had for his ward before the Australia tour. “You have to cement your place in the Indian team and batting is your biggest currency. Your ‘keeping will go through gradual improvement but you cannot let yourself and your team down as a batsman. That was my advice,” Sinha said.

Duel with a legend

Like his match-winning effort at the Gabba, here also Pant’s innings showcased his maturity. Anderson’s mastery troubled him during the early part of his innings. He waited for the veteran fast bowler to finish his spell.

Anderson was bowling with computer-like precision. His first 15 overs had 11 maidens and two wickets, including Ajinkya Rahane’s, after a serious work-over. But England’s poor team selection had them a fast bowler short and Anderson and Stokes eventually ran out of steam in the intense Ahmedabad heat. The leg-before appeal against Dom Bess on 35 was a heart-in-the-mouth moment. The umpire’s call saved Pant and much to England’s chagrin, he decided to shift gears. If his half-century came off 82 balls, the next 50 runs came in 33 deliveries.

England waited for the second new ball to break the partnership. Pant welcomed Anderson in his new spell with a wallop through long-off. A spanking cover drive followed. Stokes’ figures, too, were given a considerable dent, but a reverse lap against Anderson over slips was stunning. The irreverence of youth overshadowed the craft of a great. On his Twitter handle, former England allrounder Andrew Flintoff posted a clip of the shot with an exclamation, “Wow”.

Then, Pant went down on one knee and sent Joe Root’s off-break over square-leg to reach three figures. The bat, almost sheepishly raised, and a silent prayer offered contrast to his ‘cymballing’ from behind the stumps. Anderson dismissed him on 101 to make honours even. But Pant had already taken India to safety.

England’s error, India’s gain

In the first three Tests of this series, Stokes had bowled 19 overs. On Friday, when England needed him as a bowler, he walked the extra mile. Twenty-two overs in a day in India was serious hard work. He came to the party after being switched to the Adani End. A rising delivery induced Kohli to a loose waft outside the off stump and a dismissal for a duck. A vicious in-cutter trapped a well-set Rohit leg-before.

Anderson started to make the ball talk when he came back for a two-over spell before lunch. Setting up Rahane with incoming deliveries before making one go away that took the edge to second slip was connoisseurs’ cricket. Together, the two fast bowlers applied the choke – only 16 runs were scored in 13 overs in the first hour of play – before wiping out the cream of India’s batting. But they had to be eventually taken out of the attack. As it turned out, a third pacer on this pitch was a necessity and without Olly Stone or Mark Wood, England’s bowling lacked adequate backup. Left-arm spinner Jack Leach accounted for Cheteshwar Pujara early in the day – for the fourth time in the series – but he, too, started to look fatigued.

Off-spinner Bess wasn’t up to the mark. He bowled full tosses to release the pressure. A CricViz Analyst tweet mentioned that since Bess’ debut in May 2018, “no spinner has bowled more full tosses (68) in this form of the game”. Giving away 56 runs in 15 overs without a wicket was below par. England had the opportunity to take charge of the Test. They surrendered the initiative instead.

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