Ever since that second-ball six Rishabh Pant hit in Nottingham to get off the mark in Test cricket on the England tour, the 21-year-old has earned quite a bit of respect for himself in the Indian dressing room. Perhaps that's why, despite being a flashy batsman who at times has the tendency of playing to the gallery, Pant has been fast-tracked in the Indian ODI as well as in the T20I set-up to address the ongoing middle-order conundrum.
Presently, he is still a work in progress but on Sunday night in the third T20I against the Windies in Chennai, the Delhi batsman showed the glimpses of his true capabilities with a clinical half-century (58 off 38 balls) in a winning cause. This certainly is his first-ever significant knock in international white-ball cricket.
There is a little more than six months left for the World Cup and the team management is yet not decided on its core group of players, especially in the batting department. Hence, irrespective of the format, in recent months whenever the Men In Blue have featured in a white-ball contest, it has been an audition for the youngsters to cement their places in the England-bound flight next year. From this perspective, Pant's matured innings under pressure should improve his chances of featuring in next year's mega tournament.
At Chepauk, chasing 182 on a sluggish track, India were 45 for 2 in 5.2 overs when Pant joined Shikhar Dhawan at the crease. The asking rate was almost touching 9.5 and the slow-low conditions were not easy for the new batsman to hit through the line right from ball one.
Hence, the situation demanded some stability from the new man and Pant, going beyond his reputation of being a dasher, decided to hang in there with a more conservative approach. In the past, he had squandered similar opportunities, trying to hit his way out of trouble. But it seems with time, Pant is learning from his mistakes and it was evident on Sunday.
The Windies captain Carlos Brathwaite bowled his pacers in the middle-overs, right after the powerplay. The likes of Keemo Paul and Kieron Pollard were asked to keep it tight by bowling a stump to stump channel. But Pant was up to the task. To get the feel of the pitch, he initially, primarily played the 'V' and concentrated on ones and two. The youngster was playing second fiddle to Dhawan, who was timing the ball beautifully at the other end.
In the final 10 overs, India needed 106. With not much dew, the task seemed challenging for the hosts. There was turn on offer for the spinners and pacers were consistently getting some sticky bounce from the surface.
With the asking rate climbing, the pressure was mounting, but Pant knew taking the game deep was the key. And when he changed gears, the Windies bowlers found no answer to his onslaught. Along with his power-hitting, the southpaw made a mockery of the field-setting through his innovative scoops and touch play during the course of his maiden T20I fifty.
"Actually I am feeling lucky today because after a long time I got runs in T20s for India, specially in a condition like this where I had to score runs," Pant said after the game. "Me and Shikhi bhai [Shikhar Dhawan] were talking it would be difficult for the new batsman to come and score, but unfortunately we got out. I had decided to play according to the situation. I am happy to contribute to the winning cause."
However, ideally being one of the designated finishers in the team, Pant should have finished the game off as after his departure, the Windies fought back to make the game interesting and kept India waiting till the last ball of the innings. But this will be a massive learning curve and being a good learner, as we have seen over time, he will only get better.
The Indian team seems to have invested a lot on Pant. His inclusion in the T2OI squad at the expense of MS Dhoni, is a huge statement on part of the management. Even in the ODIs, despite a string of low scores, Pant has been trusted with a lot of opportunities in the middle-order. He is one of the most talented cricketers in the country and with match-winning contributions like these, Pant is showing that he belongs at the highest level. And now, with the focus shifting towards the Australia series, it is about time that he comes up with such crucial contributions more often because the expectations have grown.