He is not fit enough for Test cricket. He is not a good keeper. What if he drops Steven Smith? What if he misses the stumping of Joe Root? Suddenly all the criticism about Rishabh Pant’s inadequate skills behind the wickets evaporated. No columns were being written. No chatter. No tweets. Rishant Pant - the batsman had silenced his critics. A match-saving 97 at the SCG followed by a match and series winning 89 at the Gabba and then a brilliant 91 in Chennai - Pant has exceeded all expectations and defied all odds and let his bat do the talking.
Pant has an aggregate of 1190 in just 17 Tests (29 innings) including two magnificent overseas hundreds in tough conditions and 5 fifties. His batting average of 44.07 places him at number 4 amongst all wicket-keepers with a minimum of 1000 runs in Test cricket history. The three above him are AB de Villiers, Andy Flower and Adam Gilchrist so Pant is in a very exclusive Club. Kumar Sangakkara’s average dropped to 40.48 when he stood behind the wickets for Sri Lanka. Still early days but Pant’s average is higher than Quinton de Kock, MS Dhoni and Jonny Bairstow.
Despite playing a game which seems high risk Pant has come out with flying colours against top opposition attacks in their own backyard. His career took off after a brilliant counter-attacking 114 off 146 deliveries against England at The Oval in 2018. Pant came out to bat at 121 for 5 with India in disarray chasing 464. He put together a sensational 204-run fifth-wicket stand with KL Rahul and gave England a few anxious moments before being dismissed. There were two features which stood out in Pant’s brilliant performance - his shot selection and his high scoring rate of 78.08 in the knock which included 15 fours and 4 sixes.
Pant followed that up with a 84-ball 92 in an innings win against the West Indies at Rajkot. He came out to bat at 162 for 4 in the first innings in Hyderabad and top-scored for India with 92 off 134 deliveries. Although he was positive and aggressive it was not all slam-bam - there was a method in his attack. He left a number of deliveries and got a number of boundaries - 56 of his runs coming through 13 scoring shots in fours and sixes. He put together a game-changing 152-run fifth-wicket stand with Ajinkya Rahane helping India take the lead and from thereon dictate course in the match.
Pant scored an unbeaten 159 off just 189 deliveries against Australia at the SCG in 2019 again showcasing his ability to score big at a high rate in tough overseas conditions against one of the best bowling attacks in the world. Coming out to bat at 102 for 3 on the final day at the same venue a couple of years later he batted for around 45 overs with Cheteshwar Pujara at the other end and produced a scintillating 97 off 118 deliveries. While all the other Indian batsmen were playing for a draw, Pant went a notch higher - he was playing to win. He wanted to chase down Australia’s target of 407 and in all likelihood would have if he was not dismissed in the 80th over of the innings.
Pant finally had that dream chase when in the series decider at The Gabba, with most of their top-players injured, against all odds, India chased down the target of 328 to record a historic win. The man who made it possible again with his astonishing courage, determination and shot-making ability was Pant. He remained unbeaten on 89 off 138 balls and scored 55% of the runs in the chase from when he came out to bat at 167 for 3. Pant had produced one of the greatest knocks in the fourth innings in the history of Test cricket to take India to their greatest series triumph in history!
In Chennai, he again came out to bat with India under pressure at 73 for 4 with England’s mammoth 578 on the board. The unlikely pairing of the Saint and the Warrior again combined - for the third time in the last two months and put together a century stand to rescue India from the embarrassment of being bowled out for a below-200 total at home.
The thing with Pant’s methodology is that while the world and all the commentators and analysts think it is high risk Pant does not believe so. For him this is the way he bats. Attack is the first form of defense. There is a higher probability of Pant getting out defending to a spinner or a fast bowler than attacking them. And this is what he bases his game on - very similar to what the great Virender Sehwag did at the top of the order for India.
There is a strategy to the madness. Pant chooses the bowlers and the deliveries to attack. He backs himself. He has the confidence and the ability to do that. It is not a slog. It is a calculated gamble by Pant based on maximizing his own game which he owes best. But whenever the situation demands he is happy playing out overs and leaving balls outside the off stump as he showed in Sydney 2021 and Chennai 2021.
And yet the catches keep getting dropped, the odd stumping goes abegging and he concedes a number of byes which another keeper more adept behind the stumps would have saved. After dropping Will Pucovski twice on the opening day at the SCG in January, Pant averged 0.86 dropped catches per Test played - the worst for any wicket-keeper who had played a minimum of 10 matches since 2018.
While his keeping has improved Pant will never be an Ian Healy or a Rod Marsh behind the stumps. The odd catch will still go down and the odd stumping will still be missed. But as long as Pant the batsman keeps making runs in the manner in which he has from the crucial position at number 6 and number 7, the differential will always and should always be in his favour.
Pant is an outright match-winner with the bat in the lower order capable of changing the course of a match within a session. Once a fluke, twice just chance but when done again and again it becomes a pattern - that is what Pant has done batting between 5 and 7 for his country. He has made opposition captains defensive, delaying their declarations. He has instilled fear in the minds of the opposition bowlers.
Pant, a product of T20 cricket is a jewel in India’s Test crown and a great example of the positive correlation between two formats often considered at odds with each another.