Rishabh Pant sparks another conundrum before England series

Rishabh Pant

Saha has always been considered the better keeper

Jonny Bairstow has struggled as a specialist batsman in Test cricket

MS Dhoni

11th January, 2021, Sydney, India are tottering (relatively) at 102-3, when Rishabh Pant tucks his bat under his arm and strides out to the centre, personifying the lazy elegance that has garnered him as many devotees as critics. In fact, his very arrival was treated with skepticism, for plenty had expected Hanuma Vihari to come out and drop anchor, alongside Cheteshwar Pujara.  

Over the next couple of hours though, Rishabh Pant had done the unthinkable – he had made India harbor aspirations of an improbable victory, even when prosaic logic made one believe that a stalemate was the result the visitors needed to target. 

A few moons later, Rishabh Pant pulled out another incredibly special rabbit out of his multi-faceted hat, wherein he masterminded an extraordinary fourth-innings heist at Brisbane. And, lest we forget, the Gabba was deemed a fortress before Rishabh Pant threw that bit of conventional wisdom out of the window. 

Thus, the string of knocks was looked upon as those that signaled a coming of age for Rishabh Pant – something that had remained elusive prior to the series. Though there were a couple of stirring overseas Test innings previously, one of which was incidentally in Australia, the optimism had only proven to be a false dawn, as far as the wicket-keeper’s international fortunes were concerned.

Consequently, there have been several experts and fans that have been longing for Rishabh Pant’s potential as a specialist batsman to be unlocked – a tactic that might enable him to conjure more Houdini acts.

More importantly though, the temptation to deploy Rishabh Pant as a specialist batsman, primarily stems from his sheer ability to win matches, even in circumstances where a victory seems beyond the realms of possibility.

Additionally, Rishabh Pant’s wicket-keeping abilities have rarely not been under the scanner, for he has always been compared to one MS Dhoni. And, also because he seems a tad shabby behind the stumps, at least currently.

Hence, the upcoming series against England has been touted as one where India might flirt with the possibility of playing the Delhi Capitals keeper as a specialist batsman. While that would force them to play with only four bowlers, it could be something they might contemplate, in light of Rishabh Pant’s profligacy and Wriddhiman Saha’s brilliance.

However, though that might seem a good alternative in theory, considering England’s relatively fragile batting line-up, there are plenty of caveats that they might have to guard against. In fact, if one delves deeper, handing Saha the gloves and opting for Rishabh Pant as a pure batsman, might not be the most prudent course of action, at least in the near future.

Firstly, Rishabh Pant has always been the designated keeper in First-Class cricket. He has played 40 fixtures and has kept wickets on each occasion. His batting average though, still reads a shade over 50, which for a wicket-keeper batsman, is rather astounding.

Apart from the numbers, if Rishabh Pant were to play as the wicket-keeper, he would not be burdened too much by the run-scoring aspect. While it remains imperative that he keeps churning out runs, the pressure on a specialist batsman and a wicket-keeper batsman is drastically different.

To draw further parallels, another belligerent modern-day batsman aka Jonny Bairstow has endured a fall from grace in the longest format, ever since Jos Buttler has donned the gloves.

Prior to the aforementioned event, Jonny Bairstow had transformed into an adept lower-order dasher, capable of counter-attacking and putting the bowlers under pressure. However, once he had his role earmarked as a specialist batsman, his returns have dwindled significantly.

Contextually speaking, Jonny Bairstow has played 48 Tests as the designated keeper, scoring 3028 runs at a decent average of 37.85. Yet, when part of the team as a pure batsman, he has averaged 29.25 across 24 matches, only accumulating 1141 runs in the process.

Though Bairstow and Pant don’t have a lot in common, one facet that unifies the pair is its ability to not back down and keep pressing, even when throwing caution to the wind might not appease the majority of cricketers. Thus, when asked to buckle down and play a role that they aren’t particularly accustomed to, they might not produce the expected results.

Furthermore, if Rishabh Pant is completely taken away from the ‘keeping’ firing line, he might never be able to shed the tag of being an erratic gloveman. In fact, it might be wise to remember that MS Dhoni, owing to his unconventional keeping technique, was not everyone’s cup of tea, until he evolved a mechanism that would serve him exceptionally.

So far, everything that Rishabh Pant has done has been compared to what the Chennai Super Kings skipper did during his tenure as an Indian cricketer. On that count then, it is perhaps fitting that the former is also allowed the time to iron out the flaws.

And, while Rishabh Pant most certainly has to work on those deficiencies in the nets, he might not be able to simulate a match environment – again, something that could only come about if the Indian think-tank keeps faith in the youngster.

Most tellingly, the Indian team management needs to be careful with Rishabh Pant, for they’ve already endured the drawbacks of not bestowing upon him the requisite trust. At the moment, Rishabh Pant is high on confidence having steered India to astonishing victories, meaning that a sudden change in role might not accord him the clarity needed to fulfil it optimally.

Over the past few years, the Indian outfit has often been guilty of being a tad impatient and of trying too many things with Rishabh Pant – most of which have proven futile for one reason or the other. Now though, when the wicket-keeper seems to have finally found his feet in the international circuit, it seems a tad absurd to even suggest that he should be shoehorned into a new role.

Having said that, the wicket-keeper has often showcased the potential to carve a niche for himself as a pure batsman. While that might be where he ultimately winds down his career, it might just be a step too far at this juncture.

It won’t just be because he might lack the necessary experience to succeed, it would also be due to the sheer fact that this change in character would be pretty alien. After all, one mustn’t forget that he has never played a First-Class game where he hasn’t been the designated keeper.

And, in sync with the aforementioned stat, it would simply be unfair to ask the youngster to become something he has never had a crack at. But, then again, hasn’t that always been the norm with Rishabh Pant throughout his international career?

Yet, at a time when the world is finally realizing that Rishabh Pant might indeed be worth the humungous hype, it seems ludicrous that he might have to abandon his recently attained crest and begin from scratch.

Though that would, in a nutshell, sum up his career, it would most certainly undo all the good work Down Under. Surely, it can’t happen again, can it?

Also Read: Washington Sundar faces baptism by fire in his own parish

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