"It feels good to see your name in the record books," Rishabh Pant had quipped after cracking a 32-ball hundred in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in January for Delhi against Himachal Pradesh at the Feroz Shah Kotla. The attacking wicketkeeper-batsman who turned heads with the fastest hundred in Ranji Trophy in 2016 (a stunning 48-ball ton that included 13 sixes) and a triple hundred in the same season rewrote the record books yet again with a belligerent hundred, the second fastest in the history of Twenty20 (T20) cricket.
The tournament was a huge success for the Delhi 'keeper as he made 411 runs in 10 matches at an average of 45.66 and a strike-rate of 195.71. He was second in the list of top run-scorers, and unsurprisingly made it to the Indian team when MS Dhoni opted to sit out for the T20I tri-series in Sri Lanka — also involving Bangladesh
— next month.
Ever since he blasted his way to recognition in the Under-19 World Cup two years back, Pant has been hailed as Dhoni's eventual successor. A flamboyant left-hander and a brilliant strike of the ball, Pant had made it to the Indian team for T20Is twice before (against England in India and West Indies in West Indies, both in 2017), but didn't get enough game time to create an impact. He faced only the last few balls in his debut international innings and remained unbeaten, while in the only other time he played for India, Pant made a 35-ball 38 from No 3, only to be discarded from the team shortly after.
With Dhoni intent on continuing in the limited-overs' side, Pant had to bide his time and scarce returns in the Ranji Trophy last year also hasn't help his case. That said, the swashbuckling southpaw is somebody who can bolster India’s middle-order in this format of the game at least.
An eye-catching factor in Pant's batting is his outrageous strike-rate. His T20 strike rate stands at 163.58 and his List A strike rate is 104.68. While strike rates in first-class games are expected to come down, Pant has maintained it at 99 while managing an impressive average of 53.62.
Scoring big runs quickly is exactly what India miss in limited-overs cricket these days. With Yuvraj Singh out of the side, Suresh Raina still finding his feet on comeback, Kedar Jadhav and Manish Pandey struggling to be consistent enough and Lokesh Rahul not quite stamping their presence in the squad, all eyes will be on Rishabh Pant to make a middle-order spot his own.
What sets him apart is his ability to attack early in his innings. Pant opened for Delhi when making the record-breaking T20 ton last month but is also flexible when it comes to batting positions.
Delhi Daredevils used him in the middle-order a lot in the past two seasons and he didn't disappoint. His 366 runs from 14 matches in the 2017 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), including a breathtaking 97, saw Pant being one of the three retained players in the Daredevils squad for the 2018 season.
He certainly will be looking to make a similar impact for India in Dhoni's absence. While these are T20s, Pant will also have an eye on the ODI World Cup in England next year. The Indian ODI team has been doing particularly well in recent times and is on the back of a 5-1 drubbing of South Africa, but the batting line-up is far from perfect.
Indian middle-order's inability to push the scoring rate in death overs has been a major concern, but the spectacular form of the top-three have masked those woes. A good performance in Sri Lanka in the upcoming T20s could push Pant’s case in the ODI team as well.
He had a decent Vijay Hazare Trophy where he made 266 runs in six innings at an average of 44.33 and a strike rate of 128.50. India will definitely need a back-up keeper in England next year. At the moment, the incumbent is Dinesh Karthik who has had very little chances to showcase his abilities but has grabbed almost everything that has come his way. To usurp him — in ODIs or T20Is — Pant will need to bat out of his skin in the next few months.
Even though he does give record books and statisticians a hard time every now and then, consistency and huge scores hasn't really been his forte in recent times. "I set various kinds of targets for myself — small targets and big targets. I am happy if the team benefits from your performance, otherwise the century won’t matter so much. So the most important thing is that the knock or effort should contribute to the team’s success," he had said in an interview.
Though his wicket-keeping skills are likely to be less open to censure than his abilities with the bat, it is always handy to showcase multiple skills, and the tri-series will be as much a test of his keeping abilities as his proficiency with the bat.
Pant's skills behind the stumps could also be important to see if he can be a decent back-up, even though his inclusion in the final XI when Dhoni returns will rest on his skills in front of the stumps, in particular, his aptitude to make big scores at a good rate.
At 20, he offers immense promise and if India can help him realise his full potential, quite a few records could be under serious threat in the next few years. For now, though, his first aim would be to ensure that he makes the most of the Nidahas Trophy and seal his place in the Indian side in the shortest format of the game.
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Currently, BCCI president Sourav Ganguly, vice-president Rajiv Shukla, acting CEO Hemang Amin, treasurer Arun Dhumal, joint secretary Jayesh George and IPL chairman Brijesh Patel are in the UAE to finalise the arrangements.
India are scheduled to clash with Sri Lanka in three ODIs and as many T20 matches on the tour, which will begin on 13 July and conclude on 25 July.
India will travel to Sri Lanka for a limited-overs tour next month and the BCCI announced a 20-man squad for the tour, packed with youngsters, including six uncapped players.