Rishabh Pant is not the first wicket-keeper asked to shed his gloves and play in the eleven as a fielder. However, the experiment carried out in the first one-day international (ODI) against Windies at Guwahati turned out to be a perfect lesson on how not to treat a budding wicket-keeper.
The rationale behind asking Pant to field was to find a way to fit him in the playing eleven as the more effective Mahendra Singh Dhoni remains the preferred choice for the wicket-keeping position.
The selectors wanted to utilise Pant's big-hitting skills at number 5 or 6, when the need to accelerate scoring in the second half of the innings would be great. His clean, fearless hitting in Tests had highlighted his potential as a possible finisher in ODIs.
Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh had performed that role in the past. But with Dhoni having changed his approach to batting and also not being the big hitter he was, the selectors experimented unsuccessfully with the likes of Hardik Pandya, Dinesh Karthik and others before deciding to give Pant the opportunity to stake his claim.
Of course, he was not called upon to bat at Guwahati, where India steamrolled Windies by 8 wickets. Instead, inadvertently, his indifferent fielding in the deep became the topic of conversation, and unfairly so.
To start with, a wicket-keeper is possibly the only cricketer with an open-chested approach in the game. Batsmen, bowlers and even fielders, when they throw from the deep, are predominantly side-on.
Further, the wicket-keeper, and possibly first slip, are the only ones who watch the ball from the time the bowler is at the top of his run-up. They watch the ball right through the process of run-up, delivery, pitching, batsman's reaction and its consequences.
Now these two traits, of being open-chested and following the ball from the bowler's hand, are ingrained in a wicket-keeper from his formative years. All his drills, nets, coaching, etc are honed towards these two traits.
Additionally, there are a couple of other factors that restrict a wicket-keeper. For one, he hardly ever gets to throw the ball. Even on the rare occasions, when he chases down a ball and attempts throw down the wicket, he is hardly 20 yards from the stumps. Thus throwing from beyond 20 yards is alien to his training.
Another drill that is constantly perfected is his movements. A wicket-keeper's movements are sideways, not front or back. Thus he is regularly conditioned to rapidly move two or three steps to his right or left, depending on the direction of the delivery. Even to collect throws from the deep, a wicket-keeper hardly ever moves more than three or four steps. Thus, crucially, his area of operation is just those three or four steps.
Fielding, on the other hand requires different skills, from cutting off angles to anticipating and intercepting strokes, chasing down the ball, sliding, getting sideways to stop the ball as well as throwing it.
It would be pertinent to point out that budding cricketers are trained daily from childhood to get their throwing technique perfect. This could include from keeping an eye on the ball at pick-up — with foot behind the ball — to looking up, getting side-on by leading with a buckled front foot and outstretched non-throwing arm pointing to wicket-keeper's forehead, drawing back the throwing arm, transfer of weight, release of throw and follow through. This entire process is drilled dozens of times every day from childhood till it finally becomes an instinctive, fluid motion.
Pant, being a wicket-keeper, has not had this detailed throwing training. Nor has he really got used to fielding or catching without gloves. No wonder he looked lost and unsure in the deep.
Hopefully, his attempts to slide and stop the ball or throw hard without working on the technique will not damage his shoulder, back or hip muscles. That would be a blow, now that India are without the injured Wriddhiman Saha and the wicket-keeping talent pool is virtually non-existent. The team management thus has a responsibility in nurturing him.
Making Pant field in the deep would be counter-productive for another reason. His poor fielding would play on his mind and adversely affect his batting.
The best option would be to deploy Pant close to the wicket, possibly in the short point region, where he could throw himself at the ball in wicket-keeper fashion. He could dive at the ball on either flank and may even prove to be an asset there. But still he'd need personalised training to get used to pick-up and throws.
England have found a way out of this dilemma whenever they have played both Jos Butler and Jonny Bairstow. Another country that worked out this transformation quite successfully was Sri Lanka with Kumara Sangakkara and Romesh Kaluwitharana.
India too would have to quickly find a way to fit Pant within the 30-yard circle, especially if they are keen to stick with the formula of Dhoni as keeper and Pant as batsman till the next World Cup. The last thing the team needs at this stage is an injury to Pant while exercising a non-conditioned throwing or sliding muscle.
The sooner Pant is pushed into the circle the better for the team. He should be fairly adequate there. After all, if Ashish Nehra could field in the inner circle, there is no reason why Pant cannot.