So far, 2021 has been the year of Rishabh Pant. After losing his place even in an away Test, life has taken a different turn for him. When he will step out to play for the Delhi Capitals in their first game, he will do so as a captain of the side that brought him in limelight on the world stage. “Delhi is where I grew up, and where my IPL journey began six years ago. To lead this team one day is a dream I've always harboured. And today, as that dream comes true, I feel humbled” said Pant in a statement after his appointment as a captain.
It was the 71st over of India’s innings on the last day in Brisbane Test in January 2021. India were 134 runs behind with seven wickets in hand. The batsmen to follow were a struggling opener playing in a makeshift middle-order role in an injury-laden side and a whole host of newbies.
The fifth ball of the over – bowled by Nathan Lyon – hit a crack, turned viciously and landed in the palms of Steve Smith at first slip. Till that ball, apart from Cheteshwar Pujara coping 11 blows at various places on his body, the pitch did not behave as Aussies expected it to on the last day. Now after the first sign of tremor in the pitch, the crowd, the commentators and the dressing room sat in expectation of what was to follow. Under usual circumstances, that ball was enough to put a team into its shell and play for a draw in a series decider. But, the word usual and Rishabh Pant do not fit in the same sentence. The ball to follow had more flight and was around Pant’s off stump. He danced down to wallop a clean hit over the long-on fence.
Cracks, what cracks?
Pant revealed in an interview later that he had a fair idea of what Lyon would try on the ball after the one that turned. He was ready to pounce in case Lyon attempted to turn from his body, which he did. If Pant had mistimed the shot, it would have added another bullet point in a list of the situations when he did not go for a sensible option. But, this was a season of Pant. It was time for him to live by the sword he was dying by for a year and a half.
The seeds for what happened in Brisbane were sown in Sydney. Chasing a monumental 407 in the fourth innings, India lost their third wicket for 102 in the second over of the fifth day. Pant started with caution and was at 7 off 35 balls. With more than 80 overs to go, Pant had an eye on a win. He started to toy with Lyon and had zero care about the fielder lurking at the long-on fence. In the next 83 balls, he added 90 runs. For the Aussies, the pressure mounting was palpable. The result that seemed the most unlikely when the day began was on the cards. When Pant finally mistimed one while being on 97, he walked back shaking his head. Not because he missed out on a hundred but because he knew that had he stayed for an hour more, India would have pulled off a miracle.
Overlooked in the white-ball team earlier in the tour and the first Test in Adelaide, Pant established himself as a match-winner in a span of three weeks.
Back home against England, in what turned out to be a mediocre first Test for India, Pant was the lone warrior. At one point during India’s first innings, Jack Leach’s figures read 7 overs for 69 runs. Such was Pant’s onslaught against him that if Leach had not bowled in the innings again, these would have been the second-most expensive figures in the history of Test cricket in a spell involving five or more overs.
It was the fourth Test against England that sealed Pant’s reputation as a player evolved in his execution while not losing the unorthodox charisma that made the world took notice of him in the first place. England’s lion-hearted pacers in the company of Leach reduced India to 146/6 in reply to their total of 205. One more wicket and India would have handed the first innings initiative to England on a tricky wicket. In the company of Washington Sundar, Pant batted with controlled aggression. He reached his fifty in 82 balls and by that time, India were around 20 runs shy of England’s 205. What followed was carnage. Pant scored 51 runs in the next 36 balls, scoring his first Test century on home soil. He reached the epitome of audacity when he reverse-lapped James Anderson for a four over the slips in the third over of the second new ball. A week later, he repeated the same to earn a six against a much quicker Jofra Archer in a T20I. By the time Pant got out, he had helped India seal the fate of the Test and the series.
In the eight Tests against the two best sides in the world, no other Indian batsmen scored more runs than Pant’s 544. These came at an outrageous strike-rate of 76.3, twenty points higher than everyone else. What changed was a slight tweak in Pant’s method. He was playing the situation, soaking in the pressure and unleashing his inner beast when the time was right.
An age in which every aggressive right-hander with good hand-eye coordination induces a comparison with Virender Sehwag, it is Pant who fits the bill better. Like Sehwag, he is more aggressive, fearless and less milestone-driven than his contemporaries. And like Sehwag, Pant’s success in red-ball cricket is resulting in a vindication of his methods.
With his success with the bat, Pant’s improvement as a keeper went unnoticed. After missing an easy stumping chance in the first Test against England, critics were ready to point out the chinks in his armour. In the rest of the season, Pant was collecting every turning ball, no matter how much it bounced and even when it came from between the batsman’s legs.
With India looking to revamp their T20I side, Pant’s comeback was a guarantee. As it turned out, in three of the four T20Is he batted with India losing three early wickets and thus did not have the freedom to express himself.
Before earning him the captaincy of Delhi Capitals, an injury to Shreyas Iyer got Rishabh Pant an opportunity to make a comeback in the ODIs. With more balls to play, he was able to fit the template of his Test success in this format as well. Before going berserk, Pant scored at less than run a ball for the first 14 and 18 balls in the last two ODIs. Once set, he put on a show with his scoops, whips and one-handed knockout blows to hit eleven sixes and eight fours across two games. While the English batsmen vented out their frustration by trying to hit everything that came their way out of the park in the ODIs, no one came close to Pant’s strike-rate of 152 in the series.
If not for a dream run in the last three months, Delhi Capitals might not have considered Pant to lead the side full of captain materials. Especially after being below par in the last IPL even when he remains one of the only three players (and the only Indian) to average above 35 in the league with a strike-rate of above 150. Now when he has the respect of the fraternity on his side, it is practical of them to invest in a player brimming with confidence and whom they are certain to retain in the next season.