Last week, Rishabh Pant had got off the mark in Test cricket by smashing the second ball he faced over long-on for a six. In May, he had smashed a hundred in the Indian Premier League (IPL) off just 56 balls. Two years ago, Pant had scored a triple century in First Class cricket at nearly run-a-ball.
There is perhaps no young batsman in India that hits the ball as hard or as farther as Pant. He is the prototypical modern-day batsman who loves the sound of the ball thudding into his willow. So for a guy with such attacking flair and instincts, how is it that he can bat for 29 balls and then perish without scoring? How can one deviate from his natural approach so much?
On a day, when even Chesteshwar Pujara enlightened the viewers with articulate stroke-play, Pant was the stark contrast. It was rather ironic that for 30 minutes of play, it was difficult to gauge where Pant was going to score. There was bound to be an extravagant drive or assumptions pull or a flick through leg-side from Pant's bat, but it never came.
Full credit to the England bowlers who kept dangling the carrot outside Pant's off-stump. Bowling around the wicket, Ben Stokes and James Anderson kept swinging the ball away from him on a constant basis. To be precise, the pair bowled 23 balls to Pant from that wide angle, Pant left 17 of them. It was pure mastery to be able to leave the ball with such precision, but during that period of time, Pant apparently had also got into a negative mindset. His first option was to leave rather than score.
There was no intent in his approach. At times all batsmen do encounter such tough periods, but the good ones always find a way to score. It doesn't have to come in the form of boundaries, sometimes just a deft touch into the off-side that can result in an easy single. Perhaps at the end of the match, Pant can have a quiet word with Virat Kohli on how to overcome such relentless bowling.
Perhaps Pant had taken coach Ravi Shastri's words "get ugly and bat time" too much to heart. This was the same Pant that had so much conviction during his debut Test innings. In fact, he was picked in this side for his fearless cricket and positive attitude, but on Friday he looked completely uneasy. Even the seven balls that he did manage to hit were tentative prods.
Finally, at the stroke of tea, Joe Root had realised the big shot was brewing, so he cleverly turned to his off-spinner, Moeen Ali. The first ball, Pant shimmed and thought about hitting Moeen over the top, but there was hesitation and ended up playing it down the pitch. Maybe, he restrained himself because tea was approaching. However, it also told a great deal about Pant's pessimistic mindset.
Two balls later, Moeen had pitched the ball in line of the middle stump. Normally, Pant would have taken a large stride and hit it through midwicket. In sharp contrast to his character, Pant put in a stride and then tried to defend. It ended up neither and he missed a straight ball. Pant looked dejected as he walked off given out LBW for a 29-ball duck.
As he trudged off, he must have thought – why didn't I advance and loft the first ball, or why didn't I use my feet to push the delivery that dismissed me through long-on for single or two, why didn't I just flay one cut shot to a ball that was marginally short outside off-stump. But such is Test cricket, it is the mind that overpowers the natural instincts.
At stumps India's batting coach, Sanjay Bangar was asked about Pant's peculiar innings.
"Rishabh didn't get any loose delivery till he got out. He was being tested outside off by the seamers, who kept on bowling those lengths and lines. There was no clear direction to him that he should bat in a particular fashion. We encourage batters to bat in their individual style and make their own choices," he said.
It is difficult to believe that this was Pant's own choice, perhaps he was trying to prove that he can handle Test cricket via grit and determination. Maybe, he had felt after his tenure in Trent Bridge that he had both the game and the patience to play an innings that was out of character for him.
Whatever it was, Pant is sure to learn from his experience. He will need to realise that it is paramount that his approach remains optimistic. Test cricket is not often about boundary hitting, it is also about taking singles and rotating the strike. Pant had come to the crease with a preconceived idea of how he was going to bat and that was the biggest mistake he had made.
After Trent Bridge, he had stated that he always played the ball on merit and didn't like to think too much. At Southampton, he deviated from that theory and came crashing down to earth. He will learn and his dormant innings will only assist him in becoming better batsmen in the future.
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