India vs Australia: Rishabh Pant needs to learn the art of controlled aggression to attain longevity in Test cricket

Rishabh Pant is this quintessential flamboyant batsman who has a fearless approach. He possesses the talent but needs to add a crucial element, control, to his aggression.

Jigar Mehta, Dec 13, 2018 08:29:34 IST

It's the second over after lunch on Day 4:

Over 95, Ball 3: Rishabh Pant charges down and whips the delivery on the leg stump over mid-wicket, against the spin for four off Nathan Lyon.

My mind: Okay, he showed some aggression before lunch and now wants to show some intent after lunch straightaway.

Over 95, Ball 4: Pant again dances down the track, it's again pitched on the leg stump, this time he looks to loft it over long on but gets the inside half of the bat. A mistimed shot runs away for a four through deep mid-wicket.

My mind: Hmm...Not off the middle but he is looking to stamp his authority over Lyon.

Rishabh Pant hits a boundary off Nathan Lyon in the 2nd inns of the Adelaide Test. AP

Rishabh Pant hits a boundary off Nathan Lyon in the 2nd inns of the Adelaide Test. AP

Over 95, Ball 5: Lyon changes his line, pitches on middle and pulls the length a bit shorter, Pant again waltzes down, reaches for it and goes through with the swing. It's an audacious shot with a fielder stationed at long on, there are screams of catch. But it's a bit straight and wide of Pat Cummins and rolls over to the fence.

My mind: Man, that's a high-risk shot! Is there really a need for it after hitting two consecutive fours? Should look to calm down a bit and try to defend or rotate the strike next ball.

Over 95, Ball 6: Lyon again goes full, on the leg stump, Pant gets down and hoicks it over deep mid-wicket for a massive six.

My mind: This is madness, he's just hit three fours and now a six by taking high-level risk, but is it really necessary? There is still a lot of work to be done and time shouldn't be a problem in this Test. 18 runs in the over, India haven't crossed a 300 lead. Surely, he needs to play calculated cricket now?

In between Ajinkya Rahane plays out the Mitchell Starc over in which he gets a four with a beautiful cover drive, the 97th one. It's Pant vs Lyon again.

Over 97, Ball 1: The field is spread but Pant continues from where he left off, charges down the track but Lyon has learnt from his mistakes and tries something different, delivers it slow and wide, pant has to reach out for a loft and ends up mistiming it straight to the deep cover fielder. The off-spinner has the last laugh. India 282/6, leading by 297.

My mind: This was coming. Risk after risk after risk. No surprises. He needed to be more sensible. Controlled aggression was the need of the hour. India haven't reached the safety mark just yet and the lower-order doesn’t inspire confidence. This could get tricky.

4,4,4,6,OUT: This wasn't a T20I or an ODI where 40 runs were needed in the last three overs. This was a Test where India were looking to take the game out of Australia's grasp. Maybe that first innings dismissal was playing on Pant's mind.

From 282/5, India collapsed to 307/10 and Australia were provided a sniff.

Watching Pant bat in Adelaide Test was no doubt exhilarating but it was frustrating in equal measure. And the fact that Australia ran India so close in a humdinger makes you think even more about Pant's approach. If he had played with a little more patience, with Rahane going strong at the other end, India would have quashed Australia's any hopes of a comeback.

Yes, he is this quintessential flamboyant batsman, who has a fearless approach. He possesses the talent but needs to add a crucial element to his aggression: control.

In the first innings, he walked in to bat with India tottering at 86/5 and played high-risk shots early in his innings against Starc, who was getting a hint of movement. There was a loose drive missed, then the outside edge was beaten twice, then a mistimed shot just clearing mid on, then an audacious flick over deep square leg for a six despite two fielders being placed in the deep and then an outside edge that flew through the vacant third slip, looking to whip across the line, then a leading edge flying through cover and then again an outside edge beaten. All this in first 12 balls of his innings. He was eventually out defending against Lyon, for 25, done in by the drift and away spin.

Just minutes before Pant arrived at the crease, Rohit Sharma had fallen victim to one of his perpetual brain fade moments. The situation demanded stability rather than a high-risk approach.

Sanjay Manjrekar tweeted, "Just as he is about to go out to bat, someone must whisper into Pant’s ear “Test cricket, not IPL”."

He followed it up with another tweet the next day, "My issue with Pant’s attacking approach and his shots at the start of the innings is that he misses more than he connects."

In the second innings, Lyon was bowling with good rhythm and it seemed as if Pant was trying to slog his way out of trouble. It is clear that the team management has given him the license to play his natural game but someone needs to just pass on the advice Uncle Ben once famously gave to Spider-Man Peter Parker — "with great power comes great responsibility."

Maybe the man to pass on such advice should be Ravi Shastri, if only so India's coach can make sure none of his body parts pop into his mouth again.

"You've got to allow him to play his game. That's the way he's come into the side," Shastri told the host broadcaster after the Test. "He likes to get after the bowling. But he's got to be a little more sensible now. Because he did the hard work of making Lyon spread his field. After that, you've got to be smart and pick up those ones and twos and you will hit the occasional balls to the boundary. That's his game. But he's got to be a little smarter there. You make a mistake once, don't try and repeat it because then I will be in his ear quite immediately."

Yes, counterattacking works in breaking the rhythm during pressure situations but not always. There will be days when you will need to see out an entire session with the team struggling at 60/5. There will be hours when the bowler will be in his zone, bowling unbelievably well. There will be days when conditions, pitch, weather and luck everything will be against you. And these are the hours, sessions and days where Pant will need to respect the non-controllable with right mix of caution and aggression. Many great flamboyant batsmen have done it over the years like Brian Lara, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and AB de Villiers.

Just keep playing on the loop Gilchrist's brilliant 144, which came 18 years ago in Fatullah, it was an exhibition of controlled aggression walking in at a perilous 61/4 with the team still trailing by 366 in the first innings against Bangladesh (he still considers it as his best innings), or Kevin Pietersen's 186-run masterclass at Wankhede in Mumbai six years ago where he thwarted the Indian spinners with belligerence and resolve. VVS Laxman brought out another crucial point while talking on ESPNCricinfo after Pant's second innings in Adelaide — the absence of defensive play in his armoury.

"He has to definitely develop his defensive play, there is no doubt about that," Laxman opined. "Because you cannot be one dimensional when you are playing against quality bowlers. When you are playing Test match cricket, you will be playing in challenging conditions as well so you have to be having the ability to switch gears and trust your defense (which) is something not there in Pant's game. Not only in Test match cricket but since the time you've seen him play, right from U-19 days, the defensive play in missing from his game."

It seems like he is not been able to find that middle ground between defence and attack and maybe that 29-ball duck against England where he went into a shell and looked completely at sea is still playing on his mind.

Right now, Pant looks like a traveller who knows his destination but not the route, yet thinks the best way to get there is by going as fast as possible without ever checking his GPS.

His approach may work in the short term but will prove to be a hinder in the longer run. He has played some exhilarating innings but even in limited-overs, his shot selection has come under the scanner. He threw it away twice in 90s against the Windies. Against Australia in the first T20I in Brisbane, with 18 needed off 10, he tried an unnecessary reverse scoop, only to depart at a crucial juncture, failing to finish off the match.

He has to put a price on his wicket. No player, apart from maybe Kohli, is assured of a place in this Indian side. And given that his wicket-keeping is still a work in progress (though he is learning and improving every match) , he will face stiff competition from Wriddhiman Saha, once he returns to full fitness. And the scrutiny will be constant. If he has to cement his place in the side, he has to add another dimension to his approach, something that former Australia captain Michael Clarke rightly pointed out.

"Well, this situation (India's situation in 2nd inns) probably allows him to go and play with freedom," Clarke said in the tea time show on Day 4. "But as I said on air with (Murali) Karthik, I feel if you bat like that, you are playing at maximum risk. So for me, you can't have sustained success like that. The best in the world, the best of all time, can't sustain success like that. They had to tinker with their game. So he is young, he's got all the talent in the world and I have no doubt he will learn. But if he is going to bat like that, the highest he can bat is 7 and the expectations from your captain and your fans is he might come off one in 10, he might score an unbelievable hundred one in ten innings but you can't bat like that in Test match cricket against good teams and have consistent success in my opinion."

Pant is a paradoxical mix of flamboyance on the field and humility off it, much like Gilchrist and it is no coincidence that growing up, the Delhi boy idolised the Australian wicket-keeper batsman. In an interview with the host broadcaster during the rain break on day three in Adelaide, the shy and soft-spoken Pant revealed how much he followed, admired and loved Gilchrist as a person growing up. Pant revealed he was almost shaking when he first met his idol and was later informed by the host that Gilchrist was very keen to sit down and have a chat with him.

Yes, the Delhi boy is just 21, six-Tests old and in the early days of his Test career and there is no doubt he has the talent given his impressive past and blockbuster start to international cricket but in this era of high competition, he needs to speed up his learning process to be one step ahead of the others.

It wouldn't be a bad idea to start off by chatting with his idol over a cup of tea or at dinner.

Updated Date: Dec 13, 2018 09:48:31 IST







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