This is how the last two years of Rishabh Pant’s life playing for India have looked:
Not picked for India’s tour of England in 2018, and behind KS Bharat, considered the better glovesman, on the shadow A tour. Turns out the selectors forgot to check on Wriddhiman Saha, who is still injured and will remain so for the rest of the year. Suddenly he leapfrogs Bharat, disrupts the succession chain and chucks his idle summer for a back-up wicketkeeper role with the Test squad. Two Tests later, Dinesh Karthik, the original back-up ‘keeper, is dropped. Pant is now a Test cricketer.
Pant concedes 70 byes in his second and third Tests, struggling to adjust to the late movement in England. His first runs in Test cricket is off a six. In the dead rubber at The Oval, he scores a manic century to keep India alive, but gets out trying to hit a six when India need to save the match having lost all other recognised batsmen 138 behind the target. The team management asked me to go for it, he says.
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Cameras already love him. A highlights reel of his keeping mistakes shows on the big screen, and he is seen watching it. He skips up after unsuccessful dives to save byes.
He becomes the first Indian wicketkeeper to score a century in England, he goes and repeats the feat in Australia. His banter caught on the stump mics in Australia has ruined Australian TV for other, more sober keepers. At a dinner, he actually gets a photo taken with the child of Tim Paine, who had offered him a babysitting job while talking trash during a Test.
From outside the top three to the only Indian keeper with a Test century in either England and Australia, Pant’s life is not about to settle down. Soon he is being booed in his home country when playing formats where he is believed he will be more at home.
During the home series against Australia, he keeps amid “Dhoni, Dhoni” chants and loud unambiguous booing. With the bat, he is trying to perform the most difficult roles in limited-overs cricket: bat in the middle overs. Especially for India middle-order batsmen, it means one of two things: rescue act or power hitting from ball one.
‘No one will change his style but match awareness becomes crucial’ – Ravi Shastri on Rishabh Pant¬†Getty Images
For the second year in a row, Pant is not taken to England, this time for the World Cup. But another injury makes him the third wicketkeeper in the squad. Having hardly had a hit in the league stages, all of a sudden Pant finds himself asked to win the semi-final for India as a specialist batsman. After 85 minutes of restraint, he holes out to the only spinner in the opposition.
Back home, the booing continues. Pant is so tense and eager he is collecting balls in front of the stumps and conceding no-balls. His captain and vice-captain are having to ask crowds to lay off him. The selectors have given him the Grade A contract, just below the three all-format certainties.
Pant is also dropped for home Tests followed by a show of faith in limited-overs formats. In between, he goes back to his coach Tarak Sinha to rediscover the freedom of his batting, the range on the off side, and the results just begin to show.
In an ODI against Australia, though, he is hit on the head and suffers a concussion, which means India have to ask KL Rahul to keep wicket. Not only does he do well with the big gloves, Rahul scores 80 off 52 at No. 5, threatening both Pant’s roles. Even when Pant is back from concussion, India continue with Rahul as the keeper.
Even after an injury to Shikhar Dhawan, which opens up a slot in the batting order with Rahul moving back to the top of the order, Pant is left out for another middle-order batsman, Manish Pandey. The message is clear: Rahul as keeper is India’s new plan. Pant doesn’t know when his next international match will be despite indications he might be India’s preferred Test keeper outside Asia where he has had his best time in international cricket.
It is hard to imagine any other cricketer in the world has encountered such wild ups and downs in the last two years. Pant is only 22. He is bound to be confused by all this, be insecure. To look with bemusement at the wildly fluctuating statements by the team management in the press. He is the saviour after centuries away, and needs to work “very hard” on his wicketkeepeing another day. And the crowds he plays in front of: they love him one moment, but can’t wait to boo him when he makes a mistake.
This is not a wake-up-call drop: if it is, it is the height of mixed messages. The team management’s intent can never be questioned. They want the best results for India, but the methods need to put at ease those who are not playing a part in it. The plan might be to see how Rahul goes as a keeper and a batsman for a fair run, to see if he can physically take the strain, but right now, at this moment, Pant needs all the man management that Ravi Shastri is renowned for.