On a day when India well and truly cemented their advantage, Ben Jones take a look at the progress of Rishabh Pant.
There was a moment today, in the 104th over of the Indian innings, which summed up Rishabh Pant perfectly.
He went back to a short-ish delivery from Roston Chase, and cut it hard to the backward point fielder. The power behind the shot was such that the man, in perfect position to stop the ball, just saw the shot burst through him. The fielder’s technique was fine. He was in position early, and would normally have taken the ball with ease. It was the sheer power of the shot that meant the opposition could do almost nothing to stop it.
That’s what Rishabh Pant can do. When he gets it right, there is nothing that can stop him.
The start to his Test career has been a rollicking affair, but you’d struggle to argue that he hasn’t been successful. Two scores of 90+ in his first seven innings represent considerable returns for a lower-order counter-attacking batsman, for a player mooted not to have the control to succeed in Test cricket. However, the element of the young man’s batting which promises so much more is the sense that when he gets going, it’s remarkably difficult to stop him. Pant can bend the game to his will.
Take his century at The Oval. England were dominating, charging towards an emphatic victory, when Pant and KL Rahul came together in the middle. A few hours and several brutal sixes later, and Pant had reached 114 in double-quick time, turning the complexion of the game on it’s head – if not the result. England celebrated his wicket as if they’d won the match all over again, because the ease with which he was smoking the English attack to all corners of South London had you thinking that anything was possible, with him still at the crease.
The power which Pant possesses as a batsman is exceptional. His scoring rate of 9.78rpo in front of square-leg is the fastest of anyone (min 50 runs) through that zone in 2018, the Indian youngster bringing the technical base which has served him well in T20 cricket, and seeing the best of it flourish in red ball.
The benefit of having such an explosive batsman in that middle order was clear at Rajkot today. India haven’t been under any pressure in this match, but the speed of Pant’s 92 (and his partnership with Kohli in general) took the hosts from a dominant position to an unassailable one. After he’d reached his half-century, at a tick under a run-a-ball, he went up a gear. He upped his attacking intent, which saw his scoring rate rise, but such is his expertise in this aspect of the game that his false shot percentage actually went down – the more he attacked, the less risk he showed. As Pant sped up, the whole game sped up with him.
As the game accelerated away from the Windies – though in truth, this happened when Virat Kohli called the toss correctly yesterday morning – it was easy to characterise Pant as a slogger, a hitter who’ll do well on these sort of flat pitches but will struggle when a more judicious approach is needed. Even putting aside the fact that an awful lot of Test cricket is played on flat, slow decks (particularly in India, his home country, and Australia, India’s next touring destination), Pant has shown this to be an unfair criticism. Indeed, one of the things which has been most intriguing has been the extent to which Pant is willing to play the waiting game, and to play the conditions.
In England, against a top-class seam attack, he scored at less than 3rpo across the three matches he played in, attacking the spin duo of Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid as his primary mode of release. At Rajkot, on a flatter surface and facing a weaker attack, he’s punished both bowling types equally.
Whilst the value of Pant’s 92 runs will most likely prove to be insignificant in the context of this match, they are of crucial value to Indian cricket more broadly. This series was unlikely to be a challenge for Kohli’s side. In terms of performance level, they are streets ahead of the this Windies team. It is a liminal series, one between two high-profile contests which will define the year and perhaps Kohli’s captaincy, in a way that these two Tests never could.
Instead of being an everything-on-the-line battle, this series is a chance for India to learn, to introduce new players, to tweak and experiment. Because arguably, whilst Pant was batting in his whites today, his innings was as much as an assertion of his right to play all-formats for his country as it was simply a red-ball knock.
Indeed; Pant is scoring at 4.3rpo in his Test career so far, faster than MS Dhoni has scored in ODIs this year. In some respects this is a facetious comparison, but the sense of Pant representing something of an evolution, a step beyond the abilities of the current set-up, is palpable.
India’s next generation is getting a good airing at Rajkot. After Prithvi Shaw’s magnificent debut on Day One, Pant owned today, and both offer fresh, modern alternatives to the current Test crop. If Kuldeep Yadav (who despite feeling like set in the side, made his international bow little over 12 months ago) can come to the party with the ball as well, then the sense of a coming tide of Indian youth will intensify. If the youngsters can dominate in the Test arena, then perhaps the selectors will have faith in them to succeed in the ODI side, and trust them to bed in and do so by the time the World Cup comes around. Pant and Prithvi aren’t just playing for themselves; they’re playing for the next generation.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.