Wicket-keeping is a thankless job. If a wicket-keeper performs very well it is reckoned that he's only doing the job expected of him.
Tellingly a good wicket-keeper is deemed to be one who goes about his task with minimum fuss but maximum efficiency. Not surprisingly, it is his blunders – missed catch or missed stumping or failure to collect a crucial throw – that are instantly noticed. Woe befalls any wicket-keeper if his lapses lead to a defeat or a rival batsman goes on to take a toll of the bowling.
It would have been understandable if young Rishabh Pant's commendable tally of five victims in an innings on debut – a rare feat – had gone under the radar solely because he went about his work competently. But in all probability it was overshadowed simply because Hardik Pandya took a giant step in his development as the all rounder India desperately needed.
Both Pandya and Pant surpassed themselves when they came away with five victims apiece on Sunday. Their joint effort in two of the dismissals — caught Pant bowled Pandya — had a nice ring to it and was hopefully a forerunner to a long, lasting partnership.
The dismissal of Chris Woakes, the first victim of the Pandya-Pant partnership, was remarkable for the alacrity shown by Pant in recovering from a difficult position to snaffle the catch.
Pandya surprised the tall England all rounder with a bouncer. Woakes feathered the attempted hook. Pant, who was following the line of the delivery and moving to his left, reacted superbly. He jumped high to his right and just about held on to the catch that was climbing and hurtling overhead to the right. It was the sort of catch that lifts a team to greater heights and wins matches.
The catch also showed that Pant's reflexes were outstanding; much like that of the remarkable Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
There was another catch, off the pacy Ishant Sharma, that brought out the best in Pant. The fast bowler, with a distinct in-tilt, had the right hander Ollie Pope inner edging an attempted glance. The ball, however, travelled only as far as an alert Pant who dived to his left and came out of the tumble with an excellent catch.
It helped that Pant, a left hander, was comfortable with going for catches to his natural side.
At least two of the Indian fast bowlers, Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma revel in taking the ball away from left-handed batsmen and Pant's comfort with such deliveries contributed to the dismissal of openers Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings.
It is no secret that the India team was struggling to find an able replacement for MS Dhoni after he decided to quit Test cricket. Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel were around when Dhoni burst into the scene a decade ago. Ironically, when he retired and Wriddhiman Saha was injured, India selectors had no option but to fall back on these keepers. Both of them could not match up to the expectations of the team management.
Frankly Pant, who replaced Karthik, is not a finished product. He is a work in progress, especially where his wicket-keeping skills are concerned. But crucially, he is young. His commendable performance on debut would have given him tremendous self belief and confidence. It could also goad him to work harder on his shortcomings. His footwork, for instance, needs to be addressed in double quick time.
There is every indication that Pant is a wicket-keeper in the Dhoni mould; someone with fast hands and quick reflexes. This is one reason why his performance while keeping to top class spinners will be keenly followed. Should he come good, India would have found a very handy wicket-keeper/batsman.
Even otherwise, Pant must have improved by leaps and bounds on the India A tour of England last month for coach Rahul Dravid to back him for selection into the main team. Pant had five knocks of 50 and above on the tour. These proved that he could bat convincingly in English conditions. A substantial knock over the next five innings would draw further attention to that ability.
Pant's development in these past two months has shown that he could be an understudy for Dhoni in the run-up to next year's World Cup. This would certainly be beneficial to India's interests.
The Indian team has been desperate to unearth a competent wicket-keeper/batsman and Pant certainly fits the bill. His talent with the bat was never in doubt. It was his wicket-keeping skills that needed to be considerably tweaked to get him up to speed for the national team.
On Sunday he showed that he had it in him to step up and be counted. His performance on the day has virtually guaranteed him a spot in the team for the rest of the series.
Another couple of good performances would ensure that he is the man for all reasons. It would not only cement a place for Pant but also set the ball rolling for the next generation of wicket-keeper/batsmen to take centre-stage. Surely the baton exchange has not come one day too soon.