Ben Jones looks at how India’s keeper has found a template for Test success.
If you want to get a run in any sporting side, get yourself a name as a game-changer.
A fourth innings century early on in your career, a hat-trick that turns the match, a spectacular counter-attack which drags momentum back – it’s all gold. Nothing tempts coaches, captains, pundits, like the lure of a player “who can change the game single-handedly”.
Often, players like this are given longer stints than their returns deserve, because that hypothetical performance is just around the corner. That ability to change the game, grounded in varying degrees of logic and reason, is intoxicating, and deceptive. They can coast on the fumes of unearned reputation even when the engine’s gone cold.
Rishabh Pant hasn’t messed around with unearned reputation; at 23 years old, he has already delivered on it. In the last two months alone, he has emphatically changed the course of three Test matches – three big, decisive Tests. Sydney, Brisbane, Ahmedabad.
While they stand together as a run of match-turning knocks, this one was a touch different to the others. That 97 at the SCG was outstanding, but it came within the familiar white ball framework of a chase; ditto, in even more extreme terms, for the Gabba 89*. This century, 101 (118), was in the very centre of a Test match, pivoting around the first innings lead or deficit. The pitch was starting to take turn, the rest of the match beginning to take shape. The game was speeding up, and Rishabh sped past it.
But not straight away. There was a change in tempo, a pacing to the innings, and an implicit “cricket intelligence” that can go unrecognised. The guy has gears. When Pant first walked out into the middle at Ahmedabad, there was a situation to be dealt with, England having reduced India to 80/4, and the visitors’ chances of victory according to WinViz having risen to 33%. The snarl of Stokes’ bouncer to Virat Kohli, and the boost of dismissing Ajinkya Rahane on the verge of Lunch, had kicked England up a level.
So first things first after the break, Pant got himself in. In his first 30 balls, he scored only 12 runs, hitting only two boundaries and maintaining a relatively orthodox approach. He defended or left the first 14 balls he faced from James Anderson, who had been purring all day and was offering nothing in the way of pressure relief. All of his first eight attacking shots came off the struggling Dom Bess, Pant taking his own inclination to attack the spinners and fine-tuning it to the weakest member of the attack, finding his rhythm.
Then after Tea, and only then, the party started. The interval formed a clear marker in the way Pant was approaching the day, having attacked 27% of the time before the break (scoring at 3.5rpo), but 41% of the time subsequently (scoring at 7rpo). His first 50 runs came from just over 80 deliveries; the last 50 came from 33 balls.
Pant is renowned for his hitting against spin, but it was his ball-striking against the quicks which really lit a fire under the innings. In a sequence of nine boundaries in 24 balls, six of them were against Ben Stokes and Anderson; the transition from the early parts of the day, when Anderson had conceded only seven runs in the entire morning session and Stokes had bowled himself into the ground building pressure, was spirit-crushing for the tourists.
While the destructiveness came against pace, the play against Bess, Leach and Root showcased Pant’s full range of options, and the extent of his stroke really came to the fore. He went back 25 times (for 19 runs), came forward 31 times (for 26 runs), and danced down the wicket 16 times (for 14 runs). While the signature move is him charging the spinner and popping them over long on, Pant has underrated flexibility against the spinners off the back foot, adeptly manoeuvring the ball into gaps. Yet to be dismissed going back to the spinner in Test cricket, his dot-ball percentage when doing so is less than 50%. Invariably, when Pant gives himself time to read the spin off the pitch, he finds a scoring option up his sleeve.
As that second 50 runs were being plundered, there was a passage of play which summed up, quite perfectly, everything which is special about this young batsman.
Pant has been out four times in the 90s, the most of any player since he debuted in Test cricket. He’s done it twice this year alone. It’s a stat which often comes up, the cardinal sin of being dismissed short of a century, held against players for losing concentration short of the moment of celebration.
Pant has a flagrant disregard for the grander landmark, the round number at the end of the rainbow. He may well have been dismissed in the 90s more than anyone else in the last three years, but he’s also reached 90 more often than everyone else. For Pant, every run’s a landmark; every shot should be an invitation for applause.
On commentary, the nervous view was given air. Pant reverse-scooping James Anderson, armed with a new ball, for four over the slip cordon – the first player ever to do so in Test cricket – was not met with joy, but nerves. There were words spoken about how Pant should “play responsibly”. An understandable reaction in some ways, but one out of step with much of modern batting, and certainly with the particular batsman in question. The notion of him going to his century with a six was greeted with grave tones, a sense of trepidation – and then he did it anyway. Dropping down low and hammering the ball, Pant sent it soaring above the fielder and the criticism alike.
When asked about his method, and his approach through this phase of the innings, Pant responded: “the only thing in my mind is the team plan, I don’t focus on personal goals.” There will always be some lie in this, because when you exist in a culture obsessed with landmarks, you can’t help but want to prove yourself against them. What they do help with, these comments, is putting pressure on that culture.
Because for Pant, the weight of evidence on the scorecard is starting to tell. His run tally this year, 515, is the seventh highest ever for an Indian keeper in a calendar year, and March has barely begun. To top that chart, he needs only 235 runs in the remainder of 2021, which could equate to roughly 10 runs per innings, depending on the ever-volatile covid-era schedule. He should walk it.
His run rate today – 5.13rpo – is the second fastest ever for a century by an Indian wicketkeeper. Plenty of teams have been lured into trying to find “their Gilchrist”, the keeper-batsman who can take the game away from tired attacks, and simultaneously balance the side. Many attacking batsmen have been cast as “game changers” and overburdened with expectation. Pant is one of the few players deserving of the comparison.
There’s been a change elsewhere, in the sounds coming out of press conferences. Previously, there were light-hearted references to the clamour for Pant’s inclusion from the press, players never quite throwing their weight behind him. The grandees saved their grandest oratory for the orthodox young batsmen, Now, the prevailing sound is that “we back him to attack”. It’s only when he’s stopped failing, that many have spoken of allowing him to fail. It’s a recent shift.
India don’t need to learn from Rishabh Pant. They have a side packed with elegant, classical players, several of them all-time legends of the game. You need only look at the early promise of players like Shubman Gill to see that the supply chain doesn’t appear to be stopping.
India’s hierarchy needn’t learn from how Pant bats, but they can learn from how they treat batsmen like him. That unorthodox approaches need not invite scepticism; that aggression need not invite moral, mental conclusions; and that talent comes in many forms. But the main lesson you learn – Rishabh 101, if you will – is that when one player can change the game, don’t be afraid of changing for them.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.