A lot is being said about Rishabh Pant these days. Seriously, a LOT.
It was always bound to happen, given the times we live in; it’s a world where we’re constantly in the hunt for the ‘next big thing’ – at least way more than our search for any ‘first new thing’.
And so, Pant, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, fearless or reckless, was always going to find out that the toughest challenge he faces – at least before becoming anything of a known force in his own – aren’t the most hostile bowlers he faced with bat in hand or the most guileful spinners he tried to read with ‘keeping glove on hand; his first big task was going to be to emerge out of the shadows of one MS Dhoni.
On cricketing logical grounds, it’s an absolute trash-can of a comparison; do you seriously weigh the performance and prowess of, say, a debutant actor against the wiles and wisdom of an all-time genre-definer? Or that of a fresher in his first year in the company against the organisation’s soon-to-retire founder? No, you don’t.
Except you do, when the year is 2019 and the global clock isn’t so much GMT as FIT (Facebook-Instagram-Twitter).
Oddly enough for Pant, the first regard in which he is truly looking like Dhoni’s successor – given the past year or two in the life of MSD – is in the way he’s splitting debate lines and dividing opinion. It’s almost as if everyone has their own definitive Pant verdict, and all of it swings between polar opposites.
“Give him time, he’s a G.O.A.T. in the making.”
“Hang him out to dry, talent can’t keep buying the tickets.”
There’s just no middle ground. (Yeah, I get the irony – how good would it be if Pant started finding a middle ground out in the middle at times!)
Why is that, though?
It starts – you don’t say – with Dhoni, and replacing the ‘irreplaceable’. That’s a burden that has besieged all but the best when you look at Indian cricket, and you don’t even need to look too far back.
I mean, thank heavens that Virat Kohli was Virat Kohli, or else how would anyone compete with Sachin Tendulkar? And even now – all of 20,000-plus runs and 68 tons in international cricket later – one failed effort at an inopportune moment (think the 2019 World Cup semi-final, or the 2017 Champions Trophy final before that), and some still manage to burst into flames with anger.
For mere mortals – basically, most – the weight of expectation is what you’re carried up upon, and then crushed under.
But guess what? At the end of his first year in ODI cricket, Kohli averaged under 32; when he finished his debut year in Tests, his average read 22; a year into his T20I career, he’d barely managed 17 runs per knock. Do you need any reminding at all that he averages above 50 in all three formats at this moment?
And that is the first and foremost counter of the Pant camp: enough and more future greats only got there because they were allowed to get there; if you identify something special, you persist with it, teething troubles or not.
This backing, and heightened belief, is based on the immense potential young Pant has displayed, be it through an already mountainous amount of runs in the IPL, or his Test hundreds in England and Australia (hitherto unaccomplished by any Indian ‘keeper).
If we speak about limited overs cricket, and speak purely through the prism of T20s (since that’s an area of key immediate interest given the twin T20 World Cups over the next 26 months), Pant’s numbers propel him to special status – as long as you’re willing to ignore the nascent international record.
He scores nearly 30 runs per innings in the 20-20 game, and hits them at a strike rate of 160.78 – eighth-best in 16 years of crash-and-bang cricket (with a qualifying parameter of 250 balls faced). Among all international players from Full-Member nations, the only batsmen who strike better than Pant in all T20s are Andre Russell, Hazratullah Zazai, Colin de Grandhomme and Seekkuge Prasanna.
Reduce the sample space to just the IPL – widely and firmly regarded among ‘the’ premier competitions in the T20 ecosphere – and his striking ability is only bettered by Russell, Sunil Narine (who averages 17.52) and Moeen Ali (who has only batted 14 times). Oh, and Pant does his striking while managing a 50+ score once every four-and-a-half games.
That is what begets the call for a ‘lengthy rope’ – but just how long is long enough, cry out the naysayers. They, too, have a point.
He’s now been around T20 international cricket for two-and-a-half years, and in that period, of the 54 batsmen to have played at least 15 innings, there are only 12 who average lesser than Pant’s 20.40. He’s also been given 10 bites of the cherry at number four, and mustered a mere 16.80 runs per knock on those occasions, crossing 30 only twice. To worsen his case, the opposition number fours from those very games have returned 40 runs a pop, with six out of 10 scores above 30.
The counter to that starts taking us from definitive to speculative; this is that grey area where terms like ‘X-factor’ begin to slide into the conversation.
Because for every ridiculous swipe resulting in every needless dismissal (think that ugly first-baller in the opening T20I in Florida last month), it is argued that there is also the evidence of the encounters where he’s turned the tide doing things the way only he does (think the unbeaten 65 off 42 balls two games later to take India over the line in a potentially-tricky chase).
And sure, admit Team Pant, he may only have done something to that extent twice in two years of T20Is, but they also quickly point out that he’s been doing this with an almost unfailing regularity in the IPL for three years – at least five ‘specials’ in 2019, to add to about nine in 2018, which added to more than a handful in 2017.
But perhaps the biggest issue, and the most impossible to resolve debate, around Pant is the battle of perception; oh, such a bane of the times!
Here, there is no real counter, for there is no real argument in the first place – because this parameter is about as fickle as the already somewhat dizzying crests and troughs of Pant’s brief international career.
Every time he shines, he’ll be hailed as a worthy successor – if not better – to the man who’s mantle he’s taking over; every time he fails, there will be an army waiting to pounce over his wasted potential (in addition, of course, to the genuine pressure that could arise out of the form of the Ishan Kishans and Sanju Samsons in that moment in time).
The recent words of his coach and captain suggest the ‘rope’ now has a bit of a definition, at least for the immediate scheme of things. One can only hope, despite his still-so-early age, that he’s made himself immune to all the rest of the ‘surround sound’ – because the perception battles, and the raging debates, are going to go on.
He needn’t look too far for inspiration. His captain wasn’t bogged down by the pressures of being the ‘next Sachin’, and less than a decade later, finds himself established as the ‘first and/or only Kohli’.
As India hunts for its ‘next Dhoni’, will the ‘real Rishabh Pant’ be able to stand up?