Are we questioning Rishabh Pant’s T20I intent enough?

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22 Nov 2021 | 01:41 PM
authorAakash Sivasubramaniam

Are we questioning Rishabh Pant’s T20I intent enough?

A career average of 23.07 and a strike-rate of 122.87, doesn’t quite ring-like Pant to you, right?

Being one of India’s decorated talents is a tough task, now double that with the weight of expectations to replace MS Dhoni with the gloves. And now add on to the responsibility of sustaining a prolonged brilliance with the bat, it sounds tough, right? That’s the life of Rishabh Pant.

As heavily as he was criticised before, Pant’s reception in the recent years has seen a dramatic change. From being a player consistently questioned for his technique, temperament and chirpy attitude, Pant has made the same set of people eat their words. Forget that, budding cricketers idolise the wicketkeeper-batsman, that is how he has impacted the entire nation.

Thus far positively but now negatively, his influence is so blinding that we forget to look closely at what the numbers are saying. Numbers with context. T20I cricket is starkly different to T20s, even the greatest of T20 cricket, AB de Villiers suffered miserably on the international scene due to different circumstances.

For good or bad, the light always seems to be upon Pant and his pyrotechnics and approach. What tilted his selection in the first place wasn’t sturdy hands behind the sticks or fancy glovework, it was the fear that he brought alongside at the crease. Everytime the left-hander batted, the opposition feared, the bowlers erred their lines and even the best of them, had a poor run against him.

What does the number show?

But that was then, this is now, this 2021 version, or rather this two-year long version of Pant in the shortest format, has been made of blinding sentiments. In 2017, the year when the southpaw announced himself on the world stage, he had scored 366 runs for Delhi Daredevils, striking 28 boundaries, and clearing the fence 24 times. And once again in 2018, he piled 684 runs, cleared the boundary 37 times during the season and still managed to average 52.61.

For context, he has only cleared the boundary rope 28 times in his entire T20I career. In his entire IPL career, only in two years has Pant hit single-figure sixes in the season, once during his debut season in 2016 and later, in 2020. That’s where his T20 career took a nosedive. In a country where wicket keepers are plenty, who ideally are better suited to the shortest format, India have taken the punt with Pant.

And it hasn’t worked well, it isn’t working well and has no real scope of working well because the 24-year-old isn’t living true to his name. Pant’s game style isn’t about scoring runs, he isn’t a run-aggregator, his task isn’t to clear the boundaries from the word go either but his game somewhere falls right in between the two. One thing that he has done so very well in the past, mixing scoring runs with clearing the boundaries.

The muddled approach with the bat

That’s how he has stood out but in the past. Since the turn of 2020, in the IPL, Pant’s numbers and intent have taken a hit. His strike-rates in the two seasons: 113.95 and 128.52. In comparison, his strike-rates in his first 4 IPL seasons read 130.26, 165.61, 173.60 and 162.66. And that directly or indirectly has taken a hit on his international numbers.

In T20Is since debut, Pant averages 23.07 with the bat, striking at 122.87, with two half-centuries in 41 appearances. If you are batting him to be your run accumulator or anchor with the bat, two half-centuries won’t be sufficient to live up to those standards. And in a team that has the likes of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav, who all can steady the ship, the need for Pant in that role is quite questionable.

Pant’s approach in the shortest format at the highest level is exactly that: questionable. Guaranteed he is a match-winner, he is a player that heavily relies on confidence, it doesn’t take away the numbers from the face of the issue. With a minimum of ten balls, Pant has only had a SR of over 140 nine times.

A majority of his innings at the highest-level falls in the questionable portion, the grey area, where he gets out in the most painful of manners, after seemingly taking an eternity to get accustomed to the conditions. Still puzzled? In the first T20I clash against New Zealand in Jaipur, India were chasing 165, the openers had already scored 50 runs in the first five overs.

Also read: India start Rohit-era with old and similar spookiness

Rohit Sharma and Suryakumar Yadav then combined to add 59 more runs and subsequently when Suryakumar was dismissed, India needed 21 runs off 20 deliveries. Pant was batting on 11 after having faced ten deliveries. At this point, any coach at any level of professional cricket would ask the set batter to take the responsibility and finish the game off.

What happened next defines the southpaw’s approach in the last two years. Plenty of dot balls, and then followed up with a boundary that saves him from the blushes. He did hit the winning runs but the fact that the game went to the final over was also on the back of his prolonged innings at the crease.

The recurring theme and the nosedive

Even if his inclusion is justified by his brilliance with the gloves, there is a strong reason why India shouldn’t trust Pant anymore, at least in the shortest format. For starters, there are two wicketkeeper batters in the squad, Ishan Kishan and KL Rahul, who are both as a wicketkeeper and as a batter conveniently ahead of the left-handed Pant. At least that's what the numbers say.

Moreover, Pant’s game against spin has gone under the radar. With more of the left-hander’s interaction in the middle-overs being against spin, it is an evident weakness in his armour, something that might cost India.

Since 2020, in the four innings that he has played spin, Pant has scored 42 runs off 43 deliveries, with a whopping 37.20% being dot balls. His control against the tweakers isn’t the most exciting of things (69.8%), which shows that his limitations are far too much.

And then there are options.

In contrast, Ishan Kishan, who has played just the three innings, has scored at a strike-rate of 169.2 against spin. He has also scored three boundaries in as many innings, with Pant just scoring the six overall against spin since 2020. Even if we take a bigger sample size, vis-à-vis the IPL performances of both the keepers, it is clear as daylight.

Since the start of IPL 2020, with both Ishan and Pant having their own fair share of struggles, the former is miles ahead of the latter, against spin. In 27 games, the Mumbai Indians wicketkeeper-batsman averages 31.45, strikes at 122.7 and finds the fence every 7.8 deliveries. Alongside that, the left-hander also scores a six every 15.7 deliveries, which Pant in contrast, takes 45.7 deliveries, a differential figure of 30 deliveries (five overs).

While Ishan falls prey to his natural attacking instinct, 10 deliveries before Pant, the impact that he has had during his stay would sting the opponent more than Pant’s prolonged stay at the crease, showing how impact plays a huge role in T20 cricket.

Also read: India’s alienation of Sanju Samson a step in the wrong direction

Even if we discount the fact that Samson, another competitor scores at 140, strikes a boundary every 6.2 deliveries and a six every 11.4 deliveries, it is obvious that Pant isn’t the best option. With less than a year to go for the T20 World Cup, it would be ideal if there is an ultimatum next to the 24-year-old, considering how the middle-over phase is what has cost India in the past.

With Pant, India do have a player for the long haul but he would need more than his talent and aggression to succeed in the shortest format, especially with the way the format has been speeding up.

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India vs New ZealandNew Zealand tour of India, 2021IndiaRishabh PantIshan KishanSanju SamsonKL Rahul

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