This is what Rishabh Pant drafted in Test XI was meant to do. This is what Rishabh Pant can do again and again. And this is why he was selected over the better wicket-keeper, Wriddhiman Saha in both Melbourne and Sydney. After scoring a momentum-changing 29 off 40 deliveries at a crucial stage in Melbourne, Pant scored 36 off 67 deliveries in the first innings at the SCG before coming up with the match-changing 97 off 118 deliveries in the second. His innings changed the course of play and took the Australians by surprise. He counter-attacked their bowlers who were on top when he came out to bat, forcing a change in the plans and set them on the backfoot. It was his offense which gave India the confidence not only to draw the Test but go for the improbable win. An inspired line-up, although bruised and broken, stood firm and registered a historic save for India.
Pant had the talent of producing such a knock at the highest level against the best attack in the world. Thus, despite the constant nagging and complaints of some cricketing pundits going on and on and on about his lack of skills behind the stumps, the Indian think tank had the wisdom to choose him over the more accomplished keeper, Saha. Yes, Pant did drop a few chances including a few costly ones too but that is the risk India had already calculated when picking him in the XI. Now what had to be seen was whether it would pay off. No one could have imagined how brilliantly it actually did!
Pant came out to bat at 102 for 3 in the 36th over at the fall of skipper Ajinkya Rahane’s wicket who had fallen in the second over of the day. The script was already decided with many predicting India folding up by Lunch. There was heavy criticism of the decision to send the ‘loose’ Pant ahead the more compact Hanuma Vihari when India were desperately trying to ‘only’ save the match. As things turned out, it was a masterstroke!
Pant was sent in ahead of Vihari to counter-attack the Australian bowlers with a specific objective of targeting Nathan Lyon for he was potentially the most dangerous Australian bowler on a Day 5 and aiding-spin SCG wicket. There were close to 95 overs remaining to be bowled on the day when Pant walked out and it was almost impossible for India, with an injured Ravindra Jadeja, to just bat defensively and save the match. Even to salvage a draw from that point with the bowlers on top needed some disruption, someone to hit the Australians hard and take them by surprise. Pant was the answer.
But it was not a helter-skelter and reckless swinging of the bat type of knock by the left-hander. There was a method to his madness. He first played himself in scoring just 5 off the first 33 deliveries he faced. After gauging the bowlers and the conditions, he decided that the best way for India to achieve a positive result was to counter-attack. He launched Lyon for a boundary and a six and there was no looking back. Pujara, at the other end, was the perfect foil for Pant. Assured that one end is secured he continued to play his shots. The boundaries were flowing and with a few lucky reprieves Pant got stuck into the Australian attack.
He was finally dismissed for a magnificent 97 off 118 deliveries – a knock which included 12 fours and 3 sixes – putting together a match-changing 148 run partnership with Pujara. After the first 5 which came off 33 deliveries, he hammered 92 in the next 85 deliveries he faced. By the time he was dismissed in the 80th over, he had played his part in ensuring that India had a fighting chance of not losing the Test. If he had stayed in for a while longer, then there was every chance that India would have chased down that mammoth target of 407. The sheer audacity of some of the strokes he played was good enough to frustrate as talented and skilled a bowling line-up as Australia’s.
This performance in Sydney showcases what Pant brings to the table and why is a special player. He has the ability to change the course of a game within the space of overs, even in the longest format of the game. His unorthodox style and attacking stroke-play makes him very difficult to bowl to when in full flow. He can tear into the best of the bowling attacks – which is what the current Australian one is – and dominate periods of play pushing the opposition on the backfoot. He can disrupt proceedings and the opposition plans and make them defensive – which is exactly what happened in Sydney today. He has the ability to score big runs at a very high strike rate and can help India achieve the impossible. To secure a draw at the SCG was one such improbable task made possible by Pant. And to imagine that he achieved this, carrying an elbow injury from the first innings, makes this feat even more remarkable! Pant can potentially do for India what Adam Gilchrist did for Australia batting in the middle order in Test cricket. If the Indian can even achieve 40% of what his Australian counterpart did he would have been a success in Test cricket for his country.
Pant had already given evidence of his destructive prowess in Test cricket in overseas conditions previously in his career. He blasted an unbeaten 159 off just 189 deliveries at the SCG itself in 2019. Prior to that he smashed 114 off 146 deliveries against England at The Oval in 2018. The 97 at SCG 2021 was the third-highest score of his career but in the context of the match and series, perhaps his best and highest impact performance. Pant had again given a reminder of what he can do with the bat in the Day and Night Pink Ball Tour match against Australia A in December, interestingly, again at the SCG, where he smashed a breathtaking unbeaten 103 off just 73 deliveries including 9 fours and 6 sixes at a strike rate of 141.1.
During the course of his innings in Sydney, Pant went past Syed Kirmani’s record of most runs by an Asian wicket-keeper in Australia. He had 471 runs Down Under, while Pant now has an aggregate of 512 runs at an impressive average of 56.88 in 10 innings in Australia. He has also been very consistent and has a unique record of scoring 25 or more in each of his ten innings Down Under. Overall, Pant has now scored 976 runs in 15 Tests for India at an average of 40.66 and equally significantly in his case, strike rate of 69.12.
If Pant can bat the way he did in Sydney today India will not mind a few dropped catches here and there.