Rishabh Pant: In the shadow of a great

Sandip G
In the shadow of a great

In 12 ODI matches, Rishabh Pant is yet to score a half-century. (File)

The soundtrack of howling and hollering seldom deserted Rishabh Pant in Thiruvananthapuram during the second T20I a week ago. Every ball he was reminded of Sanju Samson, the homeboy and his direct competitor for the wicket-keeper-batsman slot, who was confined to drinks-ferrying chores. Worse, he dropped opening batsman Evin Lewis in the fifth over and the ripple of boos reached a rattling crescendo.

The scale of the vitriol was so startling that Virat Kohli gestured the crowd to lower the volume, but even his magnetic persona couldn’t quieten them. Impromptu, they wildly started chanting Dhoni’s name, and Kohli scowled bemusedly. Pant, cruelly, had nowhere to hide, his forlorn body language conveyed the inner torment.

He wouldn’t have anywhere to hide at Chennai either — the scrutiny could be wretchedly stinging, the Dhoni chants could get deafening. Thrice the decibels that pounded his ears in Thiruvananthapuram so much so that Pant would be cussing the choice of venue for this series.

If landing up in his closest competitor’s turf wasn’t harrowing enough, here he would be plying his trade in the spiritual home of his predecessor, MS Dhoni. Even if the crowd here heeds to Kohli’s request to keep the Dhoni comparisons (and chants) adrift, even if Pant himself steels his mind in keeping the Dhoni-legacy thoughts abreast, the shadow of Dhoni would trail him like an invisible apparition. As if the signages around the stadium aren’t ample reminders enough—from the line of shops named “Dhoni Sports” at the entrance to the beaming Dhoni faces that peer from the yellow-painted walls—the mere aura of Dhoni is irresistibly inescapable even in his absence.

Thus the potential antagonism Pant could cop is premised on a different narrative-tangent. It’s not the spontaneous angst of him obscuring a local lad in the playing eleven. It runs deeper. He will be viewed through the skeptical lens of a pretender trying to succeed the city’s most deified cricketer, the largest larger-than-life cricketer of the city. The thalai—a moniker that blends both respect and adulation in equal measure. He is not a homeboy, not even a naturalised one, yet his halo dims everything else. So everything that he does or does not compel a direct comparison with Dhoni. And they would make it evident to Pant, whether they like or dislike him.

In that sense, the Chepauk crowd is arduously difficult to please—it’s no mean task to wow them, whether the subject is from their backyard or not. They set high demands on the players, dissect their techniques and analyse their mind so threadbare that you wonder whether they’re certified coaches or trained psychoanalysts.

Even the greatest of their contemporary cricketers, Ravi Ashwin, had to endure their derision. He was once mocked during a Ranji match when he got hit on a turning track specifically prepared for him. Some of them then began chanting Harbhajan Singh’s name. Intolerant they’re to such frivolities. Months before that, they scorned Cheteshwar Pujara when he misjudged the length of an Ajit Agarkar delivery and copped a blow on the wrists during a Ranji Trophy quarterfinal match in the late aughts, when Pujara was hyped up as the Rahul Dravid’s successor.

It was their first sighting of him, and they ridiculed him with such scorn that even the most callous of Aussie sledgers would have blushed. Even the love they shower on Dhoni (and before that Sachin Tendulkar) was hard-won, based on their stupendous performances at this ground. Tendulkar faithfully struck a hundred in his first three outings on the ground—scored 970 runs at an average of 88.10 including the legendary assault on Shane Warne and pain-defying hundred against Pakistan. Dhoni, who was initially antagonised as the man who displaced local hero Dinesh Karthik, belted his only double hundred here, a back-to-the-wall hundred at No 7 in an ODI against Pakistan and made Chennai Super Kings the most popular and vibrant side in the Indian Premier League.

In their undulating appreciation of Dhoni, they debunked an old myth too, that they only appreciate the aesthetics of the game. Dhoni was often ungainly, even ugly, but it hardly came in the way of appreciating instead his stroke-play and the sharp cricketing brain.

Historic burden

So, the historic burden on Pant could only get heavier as he enters the stadium on Sunday, wherein 30,000-odd eyeballs might have their gaze fixed on him. Had he been treading better times, he would have soaked in the attention. But he clearly is not. After the initial buzz, he has fizzled out—an ODI career than began on promisingly is steeply faltering. Ten innings into his career, he’s yet to register a fifty, averaging just 22 in 10 innings, yet to live up to the promise. Even in T20Is, he has yet to make that defining, doubt-clearing effort. Promising starts, but rushed ends.

To his defence has Kohli often sprung. “We certainly believe in Rishabh's ability. As you say, it's (also) the player's responsibility to do well but our responsibility is to give him space, to support him. He should get support and it is disrespectful if you don't get it. He should be left alone as Rohit had said,” he said recently.

Batting coach Vikram Rathour, too, echoes him, in fact calling him an X factor. “The reason why we keep discussing him is that he has got an immense ability. Everybody believes he can be an X factor. All of us believe he is a good player who can come good. He is working hard on his game and fitness,” he said.

To his justification is also age and experience. He’s barely 22, has featured in just a clutch of matches, still teething in at this level and touted to replace as rare a genius as Dhoni. He has to be furnished time, even a bit of love, but Chepauk wouldn’t be where he could find instant love.

Not just his batting, some of his impetuous strokes — when he gets out playing a bad shot, he looks abysmally clumsy — could draw scoffs. Here is where his mistakes behind the stumps couldn’t go unnoticed. Instead, would only be magnified. There would be no compassion, only culpability.

How Pant deals with all these, poor form and boos, would reveal his inner resolve. Sometimes booing fires up an athlete, the prove-them-wrong mentality could overturn their form. But for some, to hear the crowd booing could throw their whole game off. It is difficult if every time you step out on a pitch it’s made clear that people don’t like you. Some of the elements Pant has to fight are unenviable — jeering, bad form, and the ghosts of Dhoni (in the reverse order). And he would have no place to hide.

Live on Star Sports network: 1st ODI at Chennai: 1:30 pm onwards