Whenever anyone suggests Twenty20 is vacuous or cheap or lacking in substance, it is worth recalling the face of Mike Hussey as he hugged Mitchell Johnson in St Lucia in 2010. Having just taken apart Saeed Ajmal to seal an unlikely spot in the World T20 final, the Australian clung koala-like to his compatriot, his face contorted in a cocktail of ecstasy and relief. Back then it was the Ajmal of arch deviousness, of spit and wit, before a combination of elbows, angles and authorities made his genius easier to read than a Mr Men book. In Gros Islet, Mr Cricket was therefore simply overcome by what he had done, the occasion and odds against him having been so vast. So when T20 is labelled as a contrivance, an entertainment rather than a sport, people are making the rather dubious step of calling Mike Hussey’s emotions fraudulent.
That said, there’s always a limit on the relevance of any sporting occasion. For poor Rishabh Pant, as he walked out to bat in Delhi Daredevils’ chase in Bengaluru on Saturday night, an IPL group match must have seemed rather a surreal affair. On Tuesday he lost his father, on Thursday he was home in Roorkee for the funeral, and on Saturday he was striding to the middle at the Chinnaswamy. After such a week, was the distraction of a cricket match a balm or an extra burden? As the crowd gave him a generous reception heading to the middle, what on earth must have been swirling about in the 19-year-old's head? It transpired that whatever swamp of emotions he was wading through, he wasn’t about to let it affect his batting. Pant’s very first ball, from slow left-armer Abdulla, was plucked off leg stump, elevated by his whiplash wrists, and sailed serenely over the fence at cow corner.
The six was telling for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was just an incredibly audacious stroke for anyone to attempt first ball — let alone in such circumstances — but Pant played it with an assurance that made it look like a percentage shot. Secondly, although to say so adds to the considerable hype already heaped on his young shoulders, it absolutely reeked of Yuvraj. The astute and early judgment of length, the stillness of the head, the simple ability to flick a cricket ball such a vast distance with such ease, the way Godzilla might swat a human off his forearm.
Pant has already appeared in India’s blue in a T20 and it seems certain this was just the first of many international appearances. That talent to send balls of full and fullish length on middle, off or even outside over the onside fence is only one small bullet in his armoury. He is equally adept at more orthodox clips through leg and favours the crouch-deep-and-cut-hard method of David Warner to any slow bowling, even slightly short. Bouncers are normally seen as an affront rather than an intimidation, the hook taken on without any second thoughts. In the Under-19 World Cup last year he took just 18 balls to reach his fifty against Nepal, his batting a major factor in India’s run to the final. Sanju Samson may be the rumoured heir apparent to Dhoni in international short forms, but it is Pant who currently looks the most hair-raising prospect. He also has the superstar looks and, like Dhoni, lucrative sponsorship deals to go with his hefty IPL price tag.
Pant’s youth and the sturdy, unassuming success of Wriddhiman Saha (only Dhoni now has more tons as an Indian wicketkeeper in the longest format) mean a berth in the Test side remains at present distant. But BCCI eyes will almost certainly have looked enviously towards South Africa and seen the way Quinton de Kock — Pant’s injured Daredevils team mate — is now not only burning short-form record books but lighting high tempo fires under entire Test matches abroad from number seven.
In November, Pant scored the fastest-ever first-class hundred by an Indian, bringing up his ton from just 48 balls on his way to 135 off 67 against Jharkhand. He fits into the mould of the most sought-after of keeper-batsmen, the ones who can take matches away from the opposition. It is possibly inevitable his idol is Adam Gilchrist.
A few weeks before that record-breaking century he had also hit 308 off just 326 balls in Mumbai, albeit on a Wankhede wicket where Maharashtra declared at 635 for 2. It made him the fourth youngest triple centurion in first-class history and his entire first-class season was simply remarkable, seeing him finish with 993 runs at an average of 76.38. Such statistics are perhaps less surprising given his cricketing upbring, having been trained by the legendary Sonnet Club coach, Tarak Sinha, a man he has described, poignantly in light of the week’s events, as “a father”. He has also been blessed to have the guidance of Rahul Dravid during his time with India Under-19s and in the IPL. At 19, Pant currently is the seventeenth in the list of highest first-class averages for anyone in India, and the seventh-highest among his countrymen. He is a statistician’s dream and nightmare rolled into one.
As his batting partners collapsed around him at the Chinnaswamy on Saturday, Pant maintained both his strike rate and poise, his scoring faltering only in the last few balls of his innings as he tried in vain to keep the strike. The situation was not aided by Amit Mishra, who attempted ramp shots that saw him succeed only in nearly ending up on his rump. Pant, though, was still standing tall as the final over started, but required an improbable 19 off it and perished playing a desperate swish off Negi’s first ball. When his stumps rattled the home crowd roared, testament to his pivotal status in the match, but as he walked off they applauded, testament to his courage. Pant looked exhausted and a touch bewildered as headed back with 57 off 36 to his name, offering a anguished grimace that could have been at the impending loss of the match, but was probably about the loss of a great deal more. Unlike Hussey, he had no one to cling to. He was alone with his bat and his thoughts, triumphant in his dignity in the face of defeat and grief.
His efforts may have been in vain, ultimately part of a punchline to another joke about Delhi’s chronic inability to snatch incompetence from the jaws of a cakewalk. Yet in a week of personal tragedy, Pant, playing in the form of the game thought by some to be just a bit of fun, gave his bereaved family at least a few moments of great pride and happiness in the midst of their horrible grief. And, in doing so, gave the world another glimpse into his surely immense cricketing future.
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Updated Date: Apr 10, 2017 17:38:59 IST