In one word, Rishabh Pant’s cricketing prowess can be summarised: ridiculous. In his breakaway First Class season in 2016-17, he scored 907 runs at an average of more than 90 and a strike rate of 106.7. Yes, strike rates don't matter in Test cricket, but when a 19-year-old is striking the ball so consistently and so efficiently, strike rate puts his talent in perspective. Pant's list of records in that season included the fastest-ever Ranji Trophy hundred and becoming the third-youngest ever to score a Ranji Trophy triple hundred.
At the end of such an emphatic season, calls to fast-track Pant into the national team were inevitable. Pant looked like an instant fit for the shortest format, if not for Test cricket. But competition for places for pure batsmen and a certain MS Dhoni still wearing the keeping gloves in white ball cricket meant Pant could never get a decent run in the team.
In Test cricket, Pant wasn't among the Top 3 choices for the wicketkeeping role at the start of the year. A generation of wicketkeepers — starved of opportunities by having their careers coincide with that of Dhoni — was keen to make its mark in international cricket. Wriddhiman Saha was India's first-choice gloveman while Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik — both of whom had made their Test debuts before MS Dhoni — were still in contention for the role.
Pant, however, had the advantage of playing for the India A team and being part of an extended tour of England right before the start of the Test series. With a few steady performances, Pant earned his place in the Indian squad as Karthik's understudy. It was likely that Pant may not even get a look in if Karthik has a decent outing.
However, Karthik's wretched form in the first two Tests forced Kohli to look for alternatives in a must-win third Test. In his debut Test, Pant was handy with both bat and gloves. He batted with freedom in the first innings on his way to a useful 24 and claimed five scalps behind the stumps when England batted. But more than his statistical contribution to the game, he brought with him an overall sense of positivity to the team that went on to score a historic win.
Still trying to find his feet at international level, Pant's first innings in the fourth Test was an indication of an overall confused state of mind as he batted all of 29 balls in the first innings without bothering the scorers and was dismissed in the second inning while trying to hit pretty much every ball for six.
The last Test at the Oval was a dead rubber in the context of the series, but for Pant it was the final opportunity to impress the selectors for the upcoming series at home against West Indies and the tour of Australia later in the year. With former Indian players like Nayan Mongia casting aspersions over his credentials by calling his wicketkeeping technique flawed, Pant simply had to make the opportunity count to stay in contention. I am not sure how keenly Pant followed Dhoni's career, but the former India Test captain had similar questions raised over his keeping technique by Syed Kirmani way back in 2006.
Pant had a torrid time behind the stumps at The Oval conceding as many as 40 byes over the two innings. Most of these were wayward deliveries that swung a mile after going past the batsmen giving the keeper no chance, but Pant was visibly frustrated at seeing extra runs against his name on the scorecard.
On Day 5, Pant had one final chance at redemption with his bat. With the team chasing an unlikely win, Pant came to the middle in the first session of the day and started by playing second fiddle to a fluent KL Rahul who was already nearing his hundred.
Once Rahul crossed his hundred and started milking the spinners, who were bowling from both ends now, Pant began to open his shoulders in typical fashion. Pant's first big hit of the day was a one-handed slog against Moeen Ali. Unlike most modern cricketers, Pant doesn't think much about shape while playing an aggressive shot. At times his hand is off the bat, or his feet are off the ground, but a clean and powerful swing of the bat is enough to send the ball over the boundary.
Pant grew in confidence in the second session. On a pitch with some rough outside his off stump for the spinners to work with, he decided attack was his best option to nullify the uneven bounce. With his full repertoire on display now, Pant danced down the track to Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali at the slightest invitation, cutting and pulling them when they tried to flatten the trajectory.
Once he grew in confidence, Pant started to score with ease against seam bowlers and hit three boundaries against Ben Stokes in the same over.
Almost inevitably, Pant entered the 90s with a huge six against Rashid and then called upon the spirit of Virender Sehwag to bring up his hundred with another almighty heave over cow corner. A man used to breaking records right from his teenage years was now the first Indian wicketkeeper to score a Test hundred in England.
With Saha still recovering from his injury, this was the perfect audition from the twenty-year-old Delhi boy to force the selectors into pushing him above other contenders like Karthik and Parthiv for the wicketkeeper's slot. Even though it came when the series was dead, Pant's sense of occasion and his application in a lost cause is going to leave a lasting mark on the selectors.