Mindset — it is the sole refuge of international cricketers these days when the schedule is so hectic that there is barely enough space to take a breather. From one series to another, the jump is a short one and it is a given that their mental positioning doesn’t really change.
For example, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh engaged in a full tour across three formats before this T20I tri-series got underway. Did they even need to shift focus at all? Perhaps India did, for the scenery changes drastically from South Africa to Colombo. Make no mistake though, the ‘us-against-them’ mentality professed by the Indian team throughout that prior tour wouldn’t have changed at all.
It was the line toed by coach Ravi Shastri on return from that previous tour. In that, he is like Jose Mourinho, an astute student of the game who can mastermind fascinating ploys on the field and staunchly guard his players off it. He can big them up, enough to make them believe they are the best in business, and he can also shield them unequivocally despite hurtful losses.
This approach singularly defines how the Indian team management goes about its business. Never mind the battle-lines drawn against their own media, within the cocoon that is their dressing room, this is a closely-knit group of players and support staff, ready to help each other out. It is their singular identity as a team — no one feels out of place, instead each individual finds his comfort zone in the role that is defined for him, whether immediately or in due course of time.
In the current context, that latter aspect is of prime importance, particularly regarding Rishabh Pant. This series is only his third appearance in Indian colours, spanning across four T20Is so far (at the time of writing). Given how his latest foray into international cricket has progressed, one is willing to bet good money that he won’t feature in the final on Sunday, lest another batsman gets injured.
It is this enigmatic presence in the Indian dressing room that is cause for concern here. Since he burst onto the scene last season, and made his way into the T20 set-up against England, every Tom, Dick and Harry in this country has talked up the youngster. Whether at a drinks’ table, or at a roadside stall, or in a classroom, or indeed the press box, Pant occupies a veritable position in any debate regarding future Indian keeper-batsmen.
And for good reason, as Pant is not only a hot discussion topic but also highly rated by the people who actually matter in Indian cricket. From the national selectors, to the team management, et al, everyone thinks he possesses the broad shoulders to handle the responsibility of becoming MS Dhoni’s long-term replacement. And yet, this same expectation has become a shadow lurking over Pant’s present, let alone his future.
Sample his first outing in 2017. Based on domestic form, and two appearances against England, there was a pertinent school of thought that Pant should have been given a spot in the Indian squad for the Champions Trophy. Thankfully enough, selections don’t happen on whims and fancies, even as Pant was afforded chances to grow in the domestic circuit. His second international outing was in West Indies, almost a reminder that he was still around. When ignored for the T20 home series against Australia, New Zealand and later Sri Lanka, a selector told this writer that Pant ‘simply hadn’t done enough to merit a call-up’.
Then the ‘Dhoni debate’ sprung up again. Repeatedly, there is a clamour for axing the legendary wicketkeeper-batsman from atleast the shortest format. Cynics find it hard to fathom that the Indian team management currently sees no difference between the 50-over and 20-over formats, and it is a unified preparation for the 2019 World Cup. Additionally, chief selector MSK Prasad has already gone on record that Dhoni is first-choice keeper-batsman for that big tournament. Thus, in summation, Pant has to wait, for his time and more importantly for stray chances like this T20I tri-series to showcase what he can do.
This is where Pant has failed to make a mark. Consider his innings against Sri Lanka in the first match of this on-going tri-series. Like any newcomer, nay, irregular in international cricket, he struggled to get going. It is never easy to just come in and smack runs, and at times playing your natural game is a struggle. The fact that there is an ‘attacking’ hype built up around Pant doesn’t help matters at all. After his slow innings, there were comparisons drawn to Dhoni, and how Pant couldn’t do better.
Dhoni is a colossus, and any such parallels are unfair both to him as well as to Pant who is still finding his feet on the international stage. Every time he comes to the crease, he appears burdened by the weight of expectation, almost as if kowtowing to the need of playing in a certain way. It even reflected in his promotion to number three in the next game against Bangladesh, further driving home the point that he is an ‘attacking’ batsman.
Natural aggression, alternately, is the term that needs to be used when referring to Pant, and that too carefully. It is very important that he learns to channel this trait of batting in the right manner, in building innings and playing as per conditions and/or match situations, rather than buying into hype that is generated off the field or fuelled by past exploits.
That Pant has not been able to find a comfort zone yet in his third contact with international cricket is a cause for worry. At the same time, the likes of Shreyas Iyer and Washington Sundar (both of whom are less talked about in comparison) have settled down quickly. It underlines the need to handle the particular case of Pant better and mould his confidence accordingly. This is where Shastri’s excellent man-management skills will be truly tested.