Pant makes an impact on his debut….
On Day 1 of the Nottingham Test when short, stocky left-handed wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant walked out to bat replacing his skipper Virat Kohli at 279 for 5, every streaming app and television set of the Indian diaspora was tuned in to watch.
Rarely has the Test debut of a 20-year old been surrounded by so much expectation. What was even more unusual was that the populace at large, given India’s travail with the bat in the series and Dinesh Karthik’s inability to adequately fill the big shoes of an injured Wriddhiman Saha, was interested much more in Pant the batsman than Pant the keeper.
He walked on to the crease, took guard, and prepared to face Adil Rashid, who had just taken the prize wicket of Virat Kohli. The Indian captain had scored 97 when he was dismissed, a rare occurrence indeed for a man whose rate of conversion of fifties to tons is second only to Don Bradman.
Having snared Kohli, Rashid could be forgiven for his strutting gait as he ran in licking his lips in anticipation of castling a debutant.
Fielders crowded around the bat, and Pant played a leg break coming into him with a straight bat. Second ball, Adil Rashid sent down his famed googly, the ball that had bowled Virat Kohli in the ODI series a few weeks before and given the legspinner a new lease of life as a Test bowler.
It was a good googly. It would have pitched on the leg and middle and either struck a nervous debutant on the back pad or found its way through the gap between his bat and pad and knocked out his stumps. This plot had been played out time again across the world as modern young batsmen, with their natural disinclination to watch the hands of wrist spinners in their hurry to execute pre-determined strokes, had made ‘mystery spinners’ of some the least gifted twirlymen in cricket.
Unfortunately for Adil Rashid, this was no ordinary debutant he was hoping to outwit.
Rishabh Pant was already standing a few inches outside the crease as he had watched his captain successfully do throughout the series. As soon as he saw the ball being released from the back of the hand, he stepped down the wicket, and picked up the ball on the half volley with the middle of the bat with his natural high back lift. By the time he finished his follow through, the ball was landing outside the long on boundary ropes. A stunned Rashid was left shaking his head, hands on his face. India’s batting coach Sanjay Bangar was to tell a reporter after the day’s play: “It takes a lot of self-confidence and gumption to do what Rishabh did.”
Rishabh Pant had announced his arrival on the big stage in no uncertain manner. His first scoring stroke had been a six, a feat rarely witnessed in the history of Test cricket. Only three times before had batsmen making their Test debut managed what Pant had done, two had been from Bangladesh, and one from New Zealand.
At Chittagong in 2010, playing his first Test match against India, medium pacer Shafiul Islam took a fancy for legspinner Amit Mishra, hitting him out of the ground for his first runs in Test cricket. Sadly, Mishra had him soon after, Yuvraj Singh taking the catch in the outfield, and that six was all that Shafiul would get in his debut innings. Two months later at Mirpur, Jahurul Islam, a middle-order batsman, would follow is Shafiul’s footsteps and hit a six to bring up his first runs in Test cricket. But where Jahurul would remain a distant second is that he would do this in the second innings of the match, falling to Graeme Swann for a duck in the first. Four years later, in the second innings at Kingston against the West Indies, Mark Craig of New Zealand would go one better, hitting a six off the first ball he ever faced in Test cricket. He had not been required to bat in the first.
Where Pant stands alone is in the fact that he is the first batsman in the history of Test cricket to start off his career with a six in the first innings that he has played and gone to a slightly more substantial score. When India’s first innings ended on Day 2, Pant’s contribution was 24 well-made runs before inside-edging a Stuart Broad delivery onto his stumps. Shafiul’s contribution in that Bangladesh innings had been 6, and Craig was left unbeaten on 7 when the Kiwi innings ended.
The other major difference between Rishabh Pant and many of the young cricketers making their first appearances in Test cricket today is that notwithstanding his youth, he has come up the ranks onto the big stage, and has not been thrust into the five-day game based on his T20 prowess.
Pant was one of India’s stars at the Under-19 World Cup in 2016, when he scored 267 runs at a strike rate of 104.29. On his return, he made 928 runs in eight Ranji Trophy games in the 2016-17 season, scoring his runs at an astonishing strike rate of 107.28. His scores that season included a triple-hundred against Maharashtra and a blitzkrieg hundred in 48-balls against Jharkhand. More recently, he has matured under the guidance of Rahul Dravid as a part of the India A team, developing the patience to bat longer. While in his first Test outing he could only manage 24, it has to be said that better batsmen than him have found their wickets uprooted by inside edges from Stuart Broad deliveries.
While it would be unfair to either judge or wax eloquent about the effort of this young man on first appearances, the maturity, poise and composure that he combined with that first fearless appearance at the biggest stage in cricket gives hope for the future of Indian cricket.
His wicket-keeping has been described as ‘work-in-progress’, but with the shining example of MS Dhoni in recent times where a world class wicket keeper emerged from the efforts of an attacking batsman who liked to bowl more than he liked keeping wickets when he started, Rishabh Pant could just be the breath of fresh air Virat Kohli needs to add that ‘X-factor’ to the world-beating Test team he is so passionate about building.