On a chilly winter night last year, a tensed Rishabh Pant knocked on the door of his coach Tarak Sinha’s palatial flat in Vaishali, Ghaziabad. It was 3.30 am in the morning. Finding Pant on the door shocked Sinha at first, but it also annoyed him at the same time. “Have you seen the time? And why have you come here?” a fired-up Sinha asked his ward.
“Why are you annoyed with me, Sir?” replied Pant. By the time, the other members of the Sinha family had woken up and were witness to the ongoing conversation at the door. Pant was called in and was made comfortable before he repeated the question to his coach.
“I felt so bad at that moment as I hadn’t said anything that harsh to him on the ground,” Sinha recalled. “I scolded him at the nets and taunted him, saying he has become a big player. He took my words too seriously. So Rishabh kept sitting till dawn broke and we also served him breakfast. I even got a scolding from my family members for treating Rishabh in such a manner. Then I realised that he takes things to heart and I have to be careful as he follows my instructions very seriously. Can you imagine he came all the way from Vasant Kunj [in Delhi], covering a distance of almost 30 kms.”
Ever since Pant came to Delhi at the age of 14, his mother handed him over to Sinha. His father, Rajendra Pant, had called Sinha from Roorkee and requested that his son be guided and taken care of. Since then, Sinha had played a perfect father-figure, and Pant going to his coach’s house in the middle of the night is evidence enough of their relationship. Sinha has made efforts to help Pant realise his dreams and said he too felt the same for him.
“He was close to his father because he had made sacrifices for Rishabh,” Sinha said. “He belonged to a middle-class family. Although his father rarely spoke to me because he was scared of me as he thought I was a serious character, but I am not. His father used to enquire about him and I would tell him he need not worry as Rishabh was doing fine. And because I had done a lot for Rishabh all these years, his father had given me the authority to be a father figure in his life.”
When Pant lost his father two weeks ago, only a figure of similar stature could help him get over the grief. Rajendra Pant, aged 53, died after a cardiac arrest while sleeping, and suddenly Rishabh Pant’s world had flipped upside down. He had played for India in the T20 format and was now ready to play his second season of the IPL for Delhi Daredevils.
“We are going to really need the whole team to rally around him to give him a lot of support not only over the next couple of days but throughout the IPL,” Delhi Daredevils coach Paddy Upton said after the incident. “Something like this is obviously going to affect him in the medium- and long-term. We just have to be mindful and supportive of his personal situation and family situation.”
While the franchise left it upon Pant to take his own time to decide his comeback, he was facing the most difficult question in his life – whether to continue living his father’s dream or mourn his death. Sinha once again stepped in and showed Pant the way as he always had. “Even I was thinking what should I do or how should I console Rishabh, but I called him up and said that you have to play because your father always wanted to see you play and not sit ideal at home,” Sinha said. “Although you did fulfill his wish by playing for India, but there is much more to do as a cricketer at the top level. Whatever you do now, your father will feel happy.”
Coming from a small town, if there was one thing in life that Pant learned very early in his life, it was practicality. Leaving Roorkie and living alone in Delhi was being practical. Pant was aware of his priorities. As a child, he was very close to his father, but for years now it was Sinha who lent his ear to Pant for everything. And it was Sinha who prompted Pant to join the Daredevils squad a day after performing the last rites of his father.
“After his father’s loss, I asked him to play IPL and was in touch with him over the phone almost every day,” Sinha said. “I had to make him positive in order to have a good result from the kid. The good thing about Rishabh is that he has learnt to bear the pain and has moved on. However, a few days back he was back at his home for the rituals and was crying. Even though everyone at his home tried to console him, but it was me who had to make him positive and insisted he thought about the future.”
Virat Kohli was in a similar situation in 2006 when his father, Prem Kohli, died at the age of 54. Kohli was playing a Ranji Trophy game at the Ferozeshah Kotla. It was his coach Rajkumar Sharma who backed him to reach the ground the next day. Kohli scored a match-saving 90 against Karnataka.
Pant, too, embraced practicality and showed a lot of character. He might come across as a happy-go-lucky and a carefree character, but he was appreciated for his maturity. “I was telling the boys, if my dad passed away I would be on the first plane out of here,” Daredevils’ all-rounder Chris Morris said recently at a press conference. “[I] have to be very honest. It’s about what my dad means to me. It takes a big person to come a couple of days after your father has passed away and play. He said his dad would have wanted him playing. It shows his character. He’s going to be a big player for India in the future.”
Drastic change in maturity
Like Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli, Pant changed as well after his father’s death. Kohli used to be a mischievous kid, but his father’s demise changed the way he looked at life. He took it upon himself to prove his worth and worked harder. Sinha said there was a drastic change in his ward and he could see a more serious Pant in the making.
“The incident has changed him,” he said. “Rishabh is a lot more mature and is not the one to get involved in any kind of mischief. Since then whatever games he has played, he has shown a lot of maturity as a cricketer.”
Last year, Pant ended the IPL with 198 runs in 10 matches. This year, he has aggregated 141 runs in just five games. His 2016-’17 Ranji Trophy season proved to be a breakthrough one, in which he scored close to a thousand runs. Pant’s renewed interest in wicketkeeping shows how much he has started to value his skill.
“He has started to take life very seriously,” said Sinha. “He is no more a cricketer who would just throw away his wicket trying to slog. Now, he is taking every little thing into account and gets down into the detail of things. He takes his dismissals too seriously. You must have seen that he has shown his prowess in wicketkeeping, the seriousness to improve is quite visible. Earlier he played the game for fun but now he says he has to prove himself and become something in life.”
With the Champions trophy approaching, Sinha said Pant has an added responsibility. “When it comes to batting, I told him in IPL, you have to stick to your game, but barring the last game [against Mumbai Indians], he has been playing more maturely, playing in single doubles and than hitting big shots.”
While the change has shown in Pant’s game, it is his ward’s gift of playing the ball really late that has helped him in the IPL. Against KKR, he flicked Umesh Yadav for a maximum over square-leg. He played the ball really late and the ball traveled almost to the second tier. Sinha hopes to see Pant play to his strength.
“When he came to me, he played late and had a lot of time in playing his strokes. He has the capability to play many strokes on one ball, a quality not many batsmen possess. Hand-and-eye coordination is brilliant, as he just flicks with the wrist and it sails over the boundary very easily. [He] has a great judgment and people often call him the left-handed Virender Sehwag.”
If Pant gets selected for the Champions Trophy, he has to realise that it will be a 50-over game and has to bat maturely, Sinha added. Pant must take notice because, in tough situations, Sinha has shown him the way, just like his father did six years ago.