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Friday, January 28, 2022

Why it’s time for Rishabh Pant to retire the down-the-track slog to fast bowlers

The shot is his go-to one on most occasions when he wants to counter-attack but he’s letting himself and the team down, like it happened at the Wanderers on Wednesday.

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai |
Updated: January 6, 2022 1:16:43 pm
Rishabh Pant, india, Rishabh Pant india, india Rishabh Pant, sports news, indian express, pant india, india pantPant’s batting hasn’t yet always kicked in on conditions that are seamer-friendly. (File)

Has Rishabh Pant ever been successful with his down-the-track heaves to pacers in Tests? He has tried that shot many times in the past – in Australia, in England, in India – but has hardly connected. Usually, he misses. This time, he got the edge and shoved India into danger territory.

If not for a spellbinding cameo from Shardul ‘Greenidge’ Thakur (he plays one-leg-up cuts like the former West Indian opener), and an outstanding performance from Hanuma Vihari, Pant’s shot could have cost India the game then and there.

At the dugout, Rahul Dravid shook his head as he caught the replay on the big screen. On air, Sunil Gavaskar’s voice quivered in barely-concealed anger as he talked about how Pant let down his team-mates, who were taking body blows. A little later, former South African pacer Morne Morkel was even more blunt: “The kitchen was hot and Pant couldn’t handle it”.

If Morkel meant cowardice, then he is wrong. Pant isn’t wimpy. If he meant Pant lost his head, he is bang on.

It’s been a pattern with him. That shot in particular is his go-to attempt on most occasions when he wants to counter-attack. Usually, he tries it early in his hit-out phase. Luckily for him, most times, he just meets air and survives to settle down and prosper after those brain fades.

He has tried it against Anderson in India and England. He has tried it against Aussies, Kiwis and it’s astonishing that he hasn’t learnt that it doesn’t work for him. Simply because it’s a nothing shot, as they say. A headless chicken like charge, and a blind slog doesn’t usually work.

Gavaskar didn’t offer any consolatory words about natural game and the assorted nonsense. Gavaskar should know. He was the captain when Kapil Dev holed out to long-off in a 1984-85 Test against England. He had just hit a six off Pat Pocock and tried a reprise next ball but found Allan Lamb. India slipped from 214 for 5 to be shot out for 235, leaving England just 125 runs to get which they did.

Kapil was dropped for the next Test, the only time he ever missed a Test. Over the years, Gavaskar has said that the dropping Kapil wasn’t his decision but that of the selectors. And that shot from Kapil wasn’t even a slog; it wasn’t just a great shot considering there was a catcher at the boundary. Pant’s was a swipe.

Pant just needs to look at his own success in the past to know how to go about such situations. In that thriller at Sydney, early last year, he took his chances but with controlled aggression. Until, he had a brain fade. The coach Ravi Shastri had just sent a message out to him to negotiate off-spinner Nathan Lyon, bowling with the old ball with boundary riders. Shastri’s suggestion, Bharat Arun would tell this newspaper later, was to not to fall prey to ego and play it smartly as Pant was needed for the second new ball.

He couldn’t resist the urge, fell, and when he walked back, Shastri made a point of sitting out in the corridor outside the dressing room, with his head turned away from the incoming Pant. Pant got the message behind the sulk, and showed great control in the decider at Gabba.

That time, Lyon tried his best to snare Pant into an inside-out lofted hit over covers. That deep area was untenanted but Pant, who isn’t comfortable playing that shot, simply decided to cut it out. Time and again, Lyon would toss it up outside off and Pant would repeatedly let it go. It was aggression at its best. Other deliveries, he would have a go but had enough self-discipline to let those tempters go untouched as he knew he wasn’t good with that shot.

If he could make that decision about a conventional cricketing shot, it should be, in theory, easier to shelve this slog across the line after charging down the track. Obviously, for some reason, it isn’t.

And since this isn’t a one-off, it’s something that either he decides for himself, or is told by Rahul Dravid and others in the leadership group about shelving it. The young Sachin Tendulkar had a great charge-down-and-loft shot to pacers but he would go up and over in the arc from mid-off to mid-on. Not the ugly heave-ho across-the-line swipe.

Pant’s batting hasn’t yet always kicked in on conditions that are seamer-friendly. Gabba wasn’t, Sydney wasn’t. When the ball seams around, he can lunge and poke like he did with the first ball here. A waft as the ball rushed past the edge. Perhaps, it’s that lack of trust in his defence that then urges him to do the outlandish. The second ball was a snorter that he did quite well not to pop it to any close-in fielders.

Two balls in, he had had enough. Aggression isn’t the crime, the shot selection was silly. Shastri sulked in Adelaide, Dravid shook his head in Johannesburg but the numerous such charges in between across various cities is where someone should have sat and had a word. Hopefully now, no one needs to tell him to dig a hole, bury that slog, and grow a plant on top of it.

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