There is a funny video of Rohit Sharma's press conference, where he is asked whether he felt surprised to see Rishabh Pant walking it to bat at No 4 against England. Knowing Sharma's cricketing acumen, he must have had a good answer but he chose to play it down with wit. The No 4 batting slot has been India's Achilles Heel for long. And it continues to haunt the team. But at the end of the day, Kohli and the management must realise that the problem has been born out of the situations they have created for themselves. That the deserving candidates for that position were given auditions without any assurance of work.
On Sunday against England, India had a new No 4. Someone who might have cemented the slot a long while back but was kept on the sidelines by lack of opportunities. Pant's 29-ball 32 against England showed he was not the right choice for the moment, not because he lacked skills but because such moments had been continuously snatched from him in the build-up to the World Cup.
In his two-year-old India career, Pant has batted five times for India in ODIs. Before the England World Cup encounter, he had batted only four times. At 146/2, with Kohli back in the hut, Pant walked in to bat for India, for the fifth time in his career, first time at a World Cup stage. Against one of the best bowling sides in world cricket.
This was the moment when Kohli and Rohit had taken their time to settle in on a pitch that was getting slower after every two overs and now wanted to launch the attack. Right then, Kohli lost his wicket. Pant did not have enough time to settle down. He had to start his strokeplay sooner than later and he did. But ball after ball, his shots either went to the fielders, or he completely missed his connections.
On air, Sanjay Manjrekar, commentating at that time, was surprised by the fact that Pant, despite being such a power-hitter of a cricket ball, has done better in the five-day format than one-dayers (ODIs and T20s) in an India shirt. Manjrekar gave a glimpse into something more serious. He brought up a valid point but did not further discuss it.
If it was discussed, it would have been realised that Pant's success in Tests has a lot to do with him getting a long run with the team, which has been lacking in his ODI career. A longer run with the team does not only account for more opportunities, it also guarantees a stamp of trust from captain and coach. The Delhi-born batsman has been constantly 'keeping for India since his Test debut against England at Nottingham. He went on to smash a hundred two Tests later at The Oval. As much as the old cliche goes that cricket is played in the mind more than on the pitch, Pant played well in England, in the format not many expected him to excel so quickly, because he was assured of a place in the team, at least on that tour. He was dismissed twice in 90s against West Indies at home during the two-match series. He was retained as the permanent 'keeper for Australia tour and after getting starts in first few innings, he smashed his highest score — an unbeaten 159 off 189 balls — to establish the fact that when talent is at peace, it delivers.
In just about six months in Test cricket, Pant was able to deliver two hundreds for India. Two Test hundreds by a wicket-keeper batsman in England and Australia, a feat not too consistent earlier. But in his two-year limited-overs career, things have been a little different. Just six ODIs for Pant in this period speak of how he has been bereft of any experience at all. To throw him at 146/2, with required rate touching 10 an over, is a little too much to expect from someone who was resting in India two weeks back. Either his World Cup call up was wrong or the team management's assessment that Pant could gift them a 30-ball 90 in the first World Cup match of his career. So to speak, no one could do it with so less experience at hand, even the much-trusted Vijay Shankar, enormously backed KL Rahul, or 3D-less Ambati Rayudu. To expect it from a 21-year-old when a soon-to-be a 38-year-old veteran finisher has failed to do it, on a slow pitch, is foolhardy, at best.
History is a great teacher, they say. If we go two decades in the past, and look at how Sourav Ganguly or even MS Dhoni went about dealing with transitions in Indian cricket, we get the answer of how terribly India has failed to fill the void at No 4 for two years now. Stories about how Ganguly requested Rahul Dravid, who had not kept wickets since his U-16 days, to don the role of a wicket-keeper, of Dhoni asking Rohit to move to the top order because there was a sudden void there tells us that when the need arose, captains backed someone to take up that role.
In 2001-02, the No 7 was an important position for India. Ganguly wanted a finisher and he could get it when a senior member put in extra effort and a youngster was given a long rope. There came the Natwest final and everything just changed. This change had begun to shape up almost two years before the World Cup in 2003. Rohit's move also happened two years before the 2015 World Cup. This is pretty much when you start building a team for the World Cup. For when you are two down for 146, you need someone who is ready, in mind and skills, to deal with that situation. India did fairly well in both the World Cups.
It didn't happen this time. And why?
On 10 January, 2017, almost two and half years to this date, MS Dhoni-led India A against England in a practice match. It wasn't an international encounter but it had its own importance as this was the last time Dhoni would lead any Indian side. The Brabourne stadium was packed from one end to the other. The Indian legend, who was on a consistent decline both with bat and in captain's role, had bid goodbye to captaincy for once and all. It was felt that Kohli, an able replacement, was ready for the role. And indeed, he was.
On the same day, a few kilometers away from Brabourne stadium in Mumbai, a 19-year-old wicket-keeper batsman had blasted a fifty. He was Rishabh Pant. A month later, he made his international debut but from that day to today, he kept on checking in and checking out of the team, courtesy of bizarre selection experiments. Some great talent, including Pant, was part of this experiment, as India lived under the perception that No 4 required a certain kind of batsman, while one man at No 5 had made up the mind to not call it a day despite lack of runs. In other words, India's No 4 problem has a lot to do with who India's No 5 was for the two years. How great Indian talent was tested repeatedly to secure only a particular position in a team.
Imagine, if that was done to a Kohli, a Tendulkar, or to a Dhoni.
In the ongoing World Cup, the one statement we keep on hearing in news and in the commentary is how India are heavily dependent on the top 3 and now after Shikhar Dhawan's ouster, on two key batsmen — Rohit and Kohli. It is not a new narrative and this narrative is not wrong at all. Kohli and Rohit's brilliance at the top has made sure that India's middle-order and some places encroached by some players remain undisturbed. They have helped Rahul get a long but haphazard run, they have helped Dhoni some breathing room as well.
Ahead of the knockout phases at World Cup, India's middle order continues to linger in the doldrums. Against Bangladesh, they face another uphill task. This won't be an easy match by any stretch of the imagination. This is a mentally strong Bangladesh, who aren't on a month-long UK tour for travel and pleasure. Pant's heart would be beating as the match time approaches. Is KL Rahul fit? Because if he is not, Pant may have to open the innings, and fall prey to another India experiment, in midst of cricket's grandest stage.
But even if Rahul is fit and India are two down for say 40 on the board in a tough chase — and that could be a tricky 200 or a massive 350, depending upon the nature of track — against at least three spinners, some heads in the Indian dressing room will be busy deciding whether to trust a short-on-confidence Dhoni or short-on-experience Pant.