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India vs England: Rishabh Pant's Measured Yet Thrilling Knock Was New Age Batting at Its Best

India vs England: Rishabh Pant's Measured Yet Thrilling Knock Was New Age Batting at Its Best

While Washington’s role as support partner on Day 3 of the fourth Test was stellar and hugely meaningful, the hero of the day was without doubt Rishabh Pant.

The second day’s play in the fourth Test was remarkable for its vicissitudes. Starting this piece Friday morning, I had to throw away several drafts as the passage of play took several twists and turns through the day, throwing up new lines of thought, heroes, failures, misses and hits. It culminates in a paean to a young player who smacked a brilliant century to take India into a position of strength, which came only in the last session, after five hours of a riveting see-saw battle between the two sides. To start with, I thought this was going to be a stellar day for India, having bowled England out for a paltry 205. The pitch hadn’t played badly on the first day, the demons had all been in the minds of the batsmen who looked confused between attack and attrition and ended up making a hash of Joe Root’s luck with the toss.

Given India’s long and strong batting line-up, overhauling 205 seemed a cinch when play commenced. By how much, not whether, would India exceed England’s total seemed the more relevant question, but this had to be hurried cast aside as Cheteshwar Pujara fell early to Jack Leach and James Anderson reeled off maiden after maiden in a superb spell of searching, probing swing and seam bowling.

Rishabh Pant Answers Cheteshwar Pujara’s Call, Shows He Can Put ‘Team First’

The contest between Anderson and Rohit Sharma, two sublime artists, was my initial theme for this piece. Rohit’s stylish, aggressive strokeplay, with a penchant for big shots, has always overshadowed his brilliant defensive technique and sound temperament. The best batsmen know how to blend defence and attack judiciously. Rohit’s handling of the tough situation after Pujara fell, and Anderson on song was captivating.

Anderson didn’t get the better of Rohit in the first session – I’d say it was honours even – but he got Rahane on the stroke of lunch to push India in a crisis at 80-4, for not much earlier, Ben Stokes had had Virat Kohli wafting at a short-pitched delivery to be caught behind the wickets for a duck.

Stokes was my next theme for this piece when he had Rohit, looking secure for a half century, caught in front of the wickets with a vicious breakback. With Kohli and Rohit as victims, the question that arose was why had Stokes been bowled so reluctantly in previous Tests? In this innings alone (till then), he had put in more overs than in three preceding Tests.

Centurion Rishabh Pant and Impressive Washington Sundar Give India Healthy Lead

True, England don’t want to overload him with work. But he has often picked up wickets when others were struggling because of his ability to mix pace, line, swing and bounce. That’s what marks Stokes out as the best all-rounder in the world, and dangerous with the ball too. To see him wrapped up in cotton-wool till this innings was flummoxing.

But my theme for the day underwent a change again later as England, after reducing India to 146-6, and in sight of gaining a first innings lead, lost their way. Anderson and Stokes couldn’t be ground into the ground and needed rest; Leach was tight, allowing batsmen few liberties, but didn’t look like getting wickets in a heap.

All eyes were on young off-spinner Dom Bess. There had been so much debate about him, whether he should have been dropped for the second Test (Moeen Ali was preferred), and how he was missed in the third Test when England packed their side with pace bowlers apart from Leach.

The pressure couldn’t have been easy to handle for a young man on his first tour of the sub-continent. However, Bess had shown rich promise in Sri Lanka, and bowled rather well in the first innings of the first Test, before losing his nerve, rhythm and control in the second.

Twitter Floored With Rishabh Pant’s Counter-Attacking Century

Unfortunately for England, he was in the second mode here on on Friday, serving up full tosses, half volleys and short deliveries – among some very testing ones – which released the pressure on Pant and Washington Sundar, putting up a back-to-the-wall fight.

England’s inability to read pitches led to wrong selections. In this particular Test going only with four specialist bowlers betrayed panic and paranoia, and a desire for harakiri. I mulled over writing on this this as the second session ended. But this chain of thought was swiftly dispelled when young guns Rishabh Pant and Washington Sundar not only stemmed the collapse but put up a rollicking 113 runs partnership to swing the match India’s way.

This sterling partnership highlighted once again the richness of talent in Indian cricket, as also the admirably never-say-die approach that has come to characterize this team over the past 5-6 months. And while Washington’s role as support partner was stellar and hugely meaningful, the hero of the day was without doubt Pant.

In the first half of the innings, he was watchful in defence and selective in strokes. Once the lead was procured, he shifted gears to move into the explosive mode that makes him such an exciting player to watch, and for opponents a player to dread.

The ability to adjust and adapt to situations, overcome crisis, and then take control of the situation is something new to Pant. This season he has reeled off crucial half centuries against Australia and England, all of them coming in crises.

This century was no different. In fact, it was exceptional for had England taken the lead, India could have been under deep pressure batting fourth. What has changed for Pant this season?

Plenty, I think. Maturity that comes with growing up is obviously a factor, as for all of us. Teenage impulsiveness makes way for a somewhat steadier view of life. In cricket, this transits into more rounded thinking, better learning from experience and harder training and preparation for playing the sport

Overcoming failure requires strong survival instinct, and even harder work in the nets to iron out mistakes. Touted as the next best thing when he emerged from the under-19 ranks, appeared to be faltering. Inconsistency in batting and lack of fitness demanded by the team management, his place in the Test side became highly vulnerable. And following these comes the desire to succeed.

In the past few months, Pant has gone through these various stages and evolved magnificently. His participation in the Test series in Australia was fortuitous, but once he got the opportunity he seized it with both hands and went on to become a key figure in India’s sensational triumph with some breathtaking knocks.

After that series, I spoke briefly with chief coach Ravi Shastri and asked him what made the team management punt on Pant when most experts and critics thought he was too profligate in his attitude and batting to succeed consistently at the highest level.

Shastri disagreed with the criticism. “The only issue with Rishabh was his fitness. We all knew his maverick batting ways, and supported it. This is what makes him so dangerous and a game-changer.”

Pant, according to Shastri, worked diligently on his fitness in Australia, batted hours in the nets to improve. “There’s serious competition for places in the team. Every player has to be on his toes. He’s worked hard on every aspect of his game, and this is showing in his performances.”

In 2021, Pant looks a different wicket-keeper from even 2-3 months back. He may not have finesse, but has considerably reduced the margin of error, which, coupled with his batting, makes him indispensable.

He has already scored 502 runs, the highest by an Indian batsman. Not just the volume of runs, but the situations he’s made these in mark him out as special. Strong nerves and reflexes, he has a wide array of strokes and the ability to improvise makes him terribly exciting to watch.

More than anything, it’s his ability to adjust and adapt swiftly, and change gears when needed makes him dangerous for opponents. As we saw on Friday, he switched from a watchful (by his standards!) approach to frontal assault as soon as the second new ball was taken.

This included a reverse sweep off champion bowler Anderson for four and then a six to reach his century! This was edge-of-the-seat-stuff. The risk quotient was high, but the timing and execution of the assault on the bowling was brilliant.

Pant had not only helped India take the lead, but also quashed England’s spirit. This was New Age batsmanship at its best. Whatever the outcome of the Test, contemporary cricket has found a trailblazer.

Fasten your seat belts!

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