India have produced many fine wicketkeepers in the past but their batting abilities haven't always been of the same level as their wicketkeeping skills. MS Dhoni is an exception but apart from that, if we look at players like Syed Kirmani, Farokh Engineer, Wriddhiman Saha and others – there haven't been enough players who could fit into the team as specialist batsmen.
But the present generation of Team India always provided hope. And the fact that the same hope and dream could be transformed into reality was reiterated today by Rishabh Pant’s breathtaking and record breaking knock of an unbeaten 159 against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Pant’s century came after Cheteshwar Pujara’s flawless, mesmerizing and splendid knock of 193 in the same innings. Yet, he succeeded in carving out his own identity and presence in that very innings.
Rishabh’s innings was significant in many ways. First of all, it broke many records. It was the first ever Test century by an Indian wicketkeeper in Australia and also the second in SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia).
If the highest Test scores by all wicketkeepers in Australia are considered, then Pant’s 159* ranks third behind AB de Villiers and Brad Haddin’s 169 and Ian Healy’s 162.
Not only that, his 159* also became the highest Test score by an Indian wicket-keeper in overseas conditions overtaking the previous best of 148 by MS Dhoni. It was also the third highest Test score by an Indian wicketkeeper overall, just behind MS Dhoni's 224 and BK Kunderan’s 192.
A Different Pant on Display
However, there was more to his innings than just the numbers. It wasn't the kind of knock we are accustomed to see from Pant. In fact, it was a very measured innings played in a calm and composed manner. He focused more on rotating the strike and building partnerships than on hitting boundaries from the very onset of his innings.
And when the lose deliveries were on offer, he didn't hesitate to punish them to the boundary.
His 159 came off just 189 deliveries at a strike rate of 84.13. Yet, only 41.54% of those runs came in boundaries, the rest came off singles, doubles and threes.
On most other occasions, the boundary percentage would read much higher. But it wasn't the case today. He showed a very matured approach which suggested that he was growing as a player with experience.
He showed the intent to leave the deliveries outside the off stump from the pacers. It was quite fascinating to see how a player, whose first intent is to attack everything in his sight, controlled himself with patience and determination. He was not afraid of Australia’s star spinner Nathan Lyon and didn't hesitate to give him the charge whenever he tried to build on pressure. Although he inside edged his deliveries some times while going for the big shots, there was nothing else to complain about his approach of playing Lyon apart from that.
With this innings, he is now the second highest run-scorer in this series with 350 runs to his name, scored at an average of 51.33. He has left even Virat Kohli behind in the race whereas Pujara is the only batsman ahead of him in terms of run tally with 521 runs to his name.
Earning His Spot in Indian Team
What a journey it has been for Pant.
From being regarded as a limited over specialist, he has become one of the first names in India’s Test lineup. Who could have expected this!
After all, just last May, it was the month of May in 2018, when the Indian selectors had announced the 16-man squad for the ODI and T20I series in England and the list excluded one deserving name.
That name was none other than that of Rishabh Pant.
He had set the IPL on fire with his batting as he had amassed 393 runs in 10 innings at a strike-rate of 173.12 by then. He had three fifties to his name as well with a highest score of 85.
Unfortunately, that didn't seem enough for the selectors as they denied him the opportunity to board the flight to England. Pant answered in style, smashing 128 runs in the IPL just a day later. At the end of the tournament he had 684 runs to his name, the highest for the Delhi Capitals, at an overall average of 52.61 and strike-rate of 173.60.
It looked like Pant had to prove himself more in order to get the attention of the selectors but another Limited overs series seemed far away. He went on to show his mettle in India ‘A’ tours in the following days and just as India were about to announce their Test squad for the series in England, Pant answered with a blistering fifty against West Indies ‘A’ in the second unofficial Test.
However, nobody was expecting him to get a Test call-up despite his good performances with the bat in the series for India ‘A’. His glove-work was still shoddy. But the selectors decided to take another bold decision as they surprised everyone by calling Pant up for the first three Tests against England.
He didn’t have the best of outings in the first two Tests but he showed what he was capable of by almost taking India to an unlikely victory in a marathon partnership with KL Rahul in which his individual contribution was 114 runs.
His run tally of 162 runs at 27.00 in the six innings wasn't anything great but he had earned the selectors and the team management’s trust with that innings.
It helped him to retain his place in the following series against the Windies in which he followed up with similar scores of 92 played in his own aggressive style in consecutive innings. Although he didn't have any big scores to his name in this entire series against Australia after that, despite getting off to starts, he made sure that he was making the last Test of the tour count again just like he did in England.
Pant now has 696 runs to his name in 9 matches at a healthy average of 49.71. Those runs include two centuries and two fifties and he would be eyeing to become more consistent in the future.
His wicket-keeping is also something that he needs to work on but he has already shown signs of massive improvement in that area as well. There is no doubt that he will only get better with time.
He has given a glimpse of the future in these few months and the Indian cricketing fraternity should be breathing easy now that Pant is slowly but surely developing into the worthy successor to Dhoni.
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