“Why isn’t Rishabh Pant in India’s World Cup squad?” shouts a Twitter handle belonging (most probably) to an IPL fan. The question is directed — hash-tagged, if you may — at Team India’s head coach Ravi Shastri, and skipper Virat Kohli. The expression ‘A cat may look at a king’ has been made immensely possible by social media, and the Pant fan surely doesn’t expect an answer to his query.
MSK Prasad and his bunch of selectors have received a lot of flak after they overlooked Pant’s credentials as a hard-hitting batsman and opted for the tried and tested Dinesh Karthik in his place for the World Cup of 2019. Pant’s lack of maturity was cited by many as the only reason that he could have been left out of what is seen as a prestigious, quadrennial cricket event.
In a recent IPL match, an eliminator against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Pant scored a quickfire 49 off only 21 deliveries to help his franchise move into the next round. He thumped 22 runs off a Basil Thampi over and brought Delhi Capitals within five runs of victory (from eight deliveries) before holing out to Mohammad Nabi off the bowling of Bhuvneshwar Kumar. After he walked away, disappointed, his team could easily have lost that match. Commentators believed that little indiscretions like the one in the eliminator were hurting Pant’s reputation and career.
Former England skipper Michael Vaughan, however, believes that Pant should have walked into the World Cup team on his prodigious talent alone — his brashness notwithstanding. There are quite a few other ex-players who too are perplexed at his non-inclusion in the squad.
Pant has performed creditably well this IPL season, as far as batting is concerned. In 15 innings so far, he has scored 450 runs @ 37.50, with an unbeaten 78 as his highest. He has hit 35 fours and 26 sixes, and he has done this at an impressive strike rate of 163.63. His work behind the stumps has however left a lot to be desired and what has disheartened his fans more is his tendency to toss away his wicket just when he looks set for a big assault.
Contrary to his image, Pant has done well in Tests. In nine matches, he has scored 696 runs with an impressive average of 49.71. He has two Test hundreds to his credit and has picked 42 victims behind the stumps, two of them being stumpings. On the other hand, in the shorter versions of the game, he has been found wanting. In five ODIs, he averages 28.25 and has taken five catches as ‘keeper and in 15 T20s, he averages 19.41 with only three catches to show behind the stumps.
It is often said that people with extraordinary talent don’t wait for doors to open; they break open doors. Could Pant therefore have forced himself into the squad; and in whose place?
First: Is he as good as — or better than — Dhoni, the team’s first wicketkeeper? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’. The former India skipper isn’t only a great ‘finisher’ but also a great wicketkeeper. Moreover, with all his experience and game knowledge, he is a mentor to India’s bowlers, both pace and spin. He passes on tips to bowlers, helps out with field placements and he has exclusive rights to the now legendary ‘Dhoni Review System’.
Next: Is Pant better than Dinesh Karthik, the team’s reserve ‘keeper? Probably as good. Karthik, who made his India debut in 2004, has played 26 Tests and has averaged 25.00 per inning, while picking 40 catches and two stumpings. He has performed better in the shorter versions of cricket, averaging 31.03 in 91 ODIs and 33.25 in 32 T20s. He has 68 victims (seven stumpings) and 19 victims (five stumpings) in ODIs and T20s respectively. However, Karthik has the reputation of being a better finisher than the young and talented Pant.
Finally, could Pant have been picked for the World Cup as a pure batsman? From those selected on their batting strength alone, he would have to displace KL Rahul or Kedar Jadhav. The former is looked upon as an extraordinary talent and the latter, added to his explosive batting, can bowl his ‘below sea-level’ stuff which is difficult to get away for runs. In selecting Jadhav, Prasad & Co. were perhaps influenced by his big scores last season. This summer, his form has been rather sketchy and of all things, he has injured himself while fielding in an IPL match for Chennai Super Kings with the World Cup at our doorstep.
One does not really know if Pant will take the flight to England with the Indian team this summer. But the good news is that he is being looked upon as Dhoni’s heir-apparent, as a hard-hitting batsman and ‘keeper, and will get to play more matches for India in the years to come. Dhoni, it is expected, will call it a day at the end of World Cup 2019. The bad news is that Pant won’t have it easy, with Wriddhiman Saha back and fit. Saha — who is technically good — will surely fight for his place in the Test and ODI sides and will keep Pant on his toes.
Pant is said to have told reporters after the Delhi Capitals-Sunrisers Hyderabad clash that he was still young and would need time to mature. To this, former India left-arm spinner and now commentator, Murali Karthik retorted, in a television interview saying, “If you are talented, you need to finish games. If not, then you can’t hide behind your age forever. How often can you say that you need time to mature?”
If there is one thing Pant can learn from Dhoni, it is how to calm his mind when the bowler begins his run up. ‘Captain Cool’ as he is known, whether he is batting or ‘keeping, widens his eyes to trigger his entry into the ‘flow state’. After that, it’s him and the ball. Those lightning fast reflexes while behind the stumps and the helicopter shots to Yorker-length deliveries come from a relaxed state of mind. Pant can chatter as much as he wants but he has to learn to get into the ‘flow state’ at the right time.
Pant can’t blame the selectors for not picking him to the World Cup squad. In his own words, he needs to mature; the earlier the better. For him, from now on it is Pant versus the mind; or else it shall have to be Pant versus Saha!
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter based in Mumbai. A former fast bowler, he doesn’t believe in calling a spade a shovel.