India vs New Zealand: From first choice to sidelines, Rishabh Pant and a case that gets more and more curious

Yash Jha

"We have started backing Rishabh Pant (as first choice wicketkeeper) and we will continue to back him and see that he progresses well€¦ this is our clear thought process, that post-2019 World Cup we are focusing on Rishabh Pant only."

These were the words of India's chief selector, MSK Prasad, on 28 October, while naming the squad for a three-match T20I series at home against Bangladesh.

The scene appeared set for Rishabh Pant to take over, even till as recently as earlier this month €" when a concussion cut short his stay in the ODI rubber against Australia.

India were 'moving on' from MS Dhoni. Prior to the recently-concluded home season, Pant had played in each of India's last 11 Tests since making his debut midway through the England tour in 2018. In ODIs, while not originally making the cut for the World Cup, Pant found himself in England €" and in the XI €" towards the business end of the competition, and continued to feature in every 50-over game until the two most recent ones against the Aussies. In the 20-over format €" his strongest suit, arguably €" Pant had been part of all 24 T20Is India played from November 2018 till January 2020, before being benched for the final game against Sri Lanka (in favour of Sanju Samson).

Essentially, Pant, at barely 22, seemed to have the backing of all parties in-charge as India's preferred wicketkeeper in all three formats of international cricket.

The present status? Pant has sat out the last five Tests India have played, with Wriddhiman Saha's superior work behind the stumps prioritised for the home rubbers against South Africa and Bangladesh. In ODIs, India's most recent assignment saw KL Rahul take over the gloves €" and while it may initially have been a forced change, Pant continued to find himself on the bench even when he was declared fit for the decider versus Australia. That could be quite telling, in the near-future scheme of things, and the words of his captain possible more so: "If he (Rahul) keeps like that, it opens up a lot of options for us. It's a great thing for the team that he is becoming a multi-dimensional player."

For India's latest assignment, a multi-format tour of New Zealand, Pant is the only 'designated' wicketkeeper in the limited overs squads. Yet, as India arrive in Oceania, Rahul and Samson €" the two to have displaced Pant in their most recent ODI and T20I matches, respectively €" might believe themselves to be the likelier candidates to don the 'keeping gloves.

While not quite catastrophic, the fall in Pant's form and fortune since the World Cup has been fairly evident.

In two Tests, both in West Indies, he managed 58 runs from three innings. In six ODI innings, he's averaged 27.50 and gone beyond 30 only twice. Most worryingly, given the year that lies ahead, Pant's performances in T20Is have waned at the most ill-timed hour: 177 runs in 11 innings, with only two knocks above 30 (and one above 50), and a strike rate of 124.64 €" not the numbers you expect from a potentially-generational talent.

Coach Ravi Shastri shed good light on the challenges facing Pant as he hits the often-crippling 'second season blues' in an interview to India Today in December. "There are times when you come in to the game like the way he has and done what he's done, you suddenly become a known quantity from unknown. That's when the pressure starts building on you as a young player. Living up to expectations becomes a thing."

In that same interview, Shastri may have also hinted at a possible roadmap for the months ahead. "Sometimes, domestic cricket is good. There is less pressure in domestic cricket and playing domestic cricket and rediscovering themselves. If he disappears for 3 months or 6 months just to work on his game, people should not think he has been treated. Absolutely not. He will come back tougher and stronger, if there is a need for that to happen."

While it might polarise those bent towards backing Pant to the hilt, there is a great amount of sense in the thought, and evidence that it could well work wonders for the southpaw.

When India return from New Zealand, the IPL will be around the corner €" and how fitting it might be for Pant to rediscover himself at the same stage where most of the world found him in the first place.

Because make no mistake, Pant's IPL numbers stand him right in the bracket of special: 1736 runs at 32.15 per innings and a strike rate of 162.69. In the 12 years of the IPL, that scoring rate is bettered by just three men €" Andre Russell, Sunil Narine (who averages 17.52) and Moeen Ali (who has batted only 14 times). Pant, mind you, returns a 50+ score once every four-and-a-half innings (compared to 6.5 for Russell).

Stretch the sample a bit further, and he begins to look all-the-more extraordinary: in the entire history of T20 cricket, only four men with more than 1000 runs have a better strike rate than Pant's career mark of 156.34 €" Russell, Colin de Grandhomme, Seekkuge Prasanna and George Munsey.

You begin to see where, and why, the rope afforded to the 'keeper-bat has been longer than what most up-and-coming cricketers can dream of.

Even as €" or if €" he starts to find himself being distanced from the team management's plans, he does, still, continue to have the backing of his skipper, because this is what Virat Kohli had to say about his opinion-dividing prodigy as recently as last month (ahead of the T20I series against West Indies): "We certainly believe in Rishabh's ability. It's the player's responsibility to do well€¦ but I think it's a collective responsibility of everyone around us as well to give that player some space to do that."

The words that followed may be a more crucial marker for all those invested in Pant €" as indeed in Indian cricket, and its future. "He can't be isolated to such an extent that he gets nervous on the field. If you want him to do well and win matches for India, all of us collectively should make him feel like he belongs, and we are here to do things for him rather than against him."

Of course, this last utterance was in response to a question regarding Indian crowds booing Pant at every little error €" and bringing up the name of that famous predecessor of his.

Ironically enough, those words bear great significance if the current status quo is to be maintained; it's taken a matter of months for Rishabh Pant to go from first-choice to sidelines.

Can the prodigy find himself again in isolation? Which way will the Pant-pendulum swing now?

Also See: Stuart Broad backs James Anderson to play 'big part' in England's upcoming Ashes defence

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