There is a fine line between fearless cricket and careless cricket. For Rishabh Pant, his first foray into international cricket seemed like he was leaning towards the latter. After receiving his first international call-up in 2017, he was dropping catches, missing stumpings and not much was evident on the batting front. He managed just one fifty-plus score in his first 12 limited-overs matches and averaged 38.36 from 14 Test innings by the end of 2018.
For a rookie in the international circuit, the beginning might not paint the full picture of his potential. But the hype surrounding Pant was massive. At 19, he had a first-class triple century to his name, set the record for the fastest Under-19 ODI fifty and had a first-class century off just 48 balls. Then there was the task of replacing the wicketkeeper-batsman named Mahendra Singh Dhoni, whose name rang shrill from the stands every time Pant miscued a shot or fumbled behind the stumps. His erratic shot selection was under the microscope.
“His style is not to block and occupy. He can change the whole outcome of the game in a few overs. But the shot selection is something he can work on, especially when playing for India and expectations are high,” Delhi coach KP Bhaskar said about Pant in 2017 soon after his selection for the national team.
Pant’s high backlift and ferocious bat speed allowed him to take on pacers and spinners with ease. However, he was susceptible to anything bowled outside off-stump. In the 14 Test innings he batted until 2018, he was dismissed nine times while attempting a cover drive or trying to defend on the front foot.
As India began their World Test Championship campaign with a successful tour of the West Indies in 2019, Pant was once again under pressure after scoring 58 runs from three innings. Head coach Ravi Shastri reproached the youngster for trying to hit boundaries from the get-go.
“He tries to repeat it a couple of times and gets out, he will be told. There will be a rap on the knuckles there - talent or no talent - because you are letting the team down, forget letting yourself down,” Shastri said.
Turning around bad beginnings was nothing new to Pant. After being picked by the erstwhile Delhi Daredevils for Rs 1.9 crore in 2016 Indian Premier League (IPL) auction, he played ten games in the season and scored 198 runs at a strike rate of 130. With the trust from the team management, he almost doubled his tally in 2017 scoring 366 runs in 14 innings which also included a blistering 97 against Gujarat Lions. The next season, he was at his devastating best scoring 684 runs at an average of 52.61 and a strike rate of 173.60.
He held back on hunting the moving ball, he completely eliminated slog on the off-side which got him thrice until then, he masked his counter-attacking self with resolute batting.
Then came the valiant 97 at the SCG against insurmountable odds, the match-winning 89 not out at the Gabba as India recorded an era-defining series win in Australia. Then there was the tough as nails 101 against England at home in the Test at Ahmedabad that helped India qualify for the WTC final with an innings win.
Since December 2020, Pant has scored four fifties, which is the highest for the period in the WTC and has the second-best average of 60.44 among Indian batters.
“When you have a naturally brilliant match-winner of his ability playing to potential, there's no greater sight in cricket. I think in the last two months what he's done to win matches for India, there'll be players who won't do it in a lifetime and would have never done it in a lifetime,” Ravi Shastri said about Pant after India sealed the series against England by 3-1.
In the past two years over 15 innings, Pant was dismissed only twice while playing a cover-drive. He has grown confident with his front foot defence, as it was evident the way he held back against the old ball in the Ahmedabad Test for over three and half hours, often playing with soft hands.
There was maturity in his approach even while his power game stayed on point. As the WTC final draws closer, bowlers will be wary of Pant who is enjoying a purple patch.