KL Rahul, Ajinkya Rahane, Ambati Rayudu, KL Rahul again, Vijay Shankar and now, Rishabh Pant.
This is just the brief list of batsmen that have been backed by Virat Kohli to be India’s No 4 in One-Day Internationals. Pant was the latest addition when the Indian captain responded to Ian Bishop’s query during the toss of the second ODI against West Indies on Sunday. Going by the other names on the list, the wicket-keeper batsman would do well to make sure he does not fall to the curse (for the lack of a better word) of being India’s No 4.
“Rishabh will be at 4 and Shreyas Iyer at No 5 for us. We feel this gives Pant the chance to spend time in the middle but, look, too much has been said about No 4 and 5. I see these roles as flexible in ODIs. No 6 and No 7 are more specialised but who bats at 4 and 5 is not fixed for us,” the Indian captain explained.
Yes, indeed, it is no secret that India has a middle-order problem in the 50-over format; the very issue that hurt India’s chances of progressing to the World Cup final. Pant found himself thrown in the deep end in the middle of the tournament, due to a series of unfortunate accidents. But it is no accident now, when India are touring the Caribbean, that he finds himself in that much-debated position.
And in his first post World Cup audition, Pant once again left us scratching our heads.
It might have been a different format, but Pant had three interesting outings at No 4 during the T20I series that preceded the ODIs. He was out recklessly in the first match, lethargically in the second but stepped up in style to finish off the run-chase in the third outing.
What stood out in that unbeaten innings in Guyana was the number of percentage shots that Pant played. He was not exactly being restrained but he played the field, played balls on their merits and picked off gaps. Two flat sixes he hit on the off-side stood out: straight bat, flat trajectory, perfectly placed. It was proof that he can find success without playing high-risk-low-reward cricket.
“There are various times when I get frustrated when I don’t get the runs,” Pant had said after the T20I series. “Then I think what I could have done differently to perform. There are times when I take the right decision and even then I am not able to perform.”
“It happens in cricket and is part and parcel of the game. But what I try to do always is to focus on my basics, trust my instincts and just follow the process,” he added.
But at Queen’s Park Oval on Sunday, he once again found himself in an odd situation: neither batting with confidence nor playing low-risk cricket. In his brief stay in the middle. he went from 13 off 13 balls to 20 off 34 (7 runs coming from 21 balls) before being bowled off the 35th ball he faced. After playing a delightful flick and a cut early on in the innings, Pant got bogged down, against Roston Chase especially. With Kohli looking imperious at the other end, he just had to rotate strike and let his captain do the heavy-lifting while getting himself to a good start.
When he ended up getting dismissed, he once again disappointed (his supporters but mainly, himself) with the shot-selection. It was an innocuous length ball from Carlos Brathwaite that Pant got neither forward to nor backward. He got stuck at the crease, missed an attempted shovel over square leg completely and saw his off-stump rattled.
Shot-selection. That’s been the bugbear of Pant’s brief international career so far, and as he clenched his teeth while returning to the pavilion, you could see the frustration writ large on his face.
Shreyas Iyer, then, walked out at No 5 and provided what could be a good template for Pant as well in ODIs. Iyer reached his third fifty in six ODI innings and took 49 balls to get there. He kept up a scoring rate of more than 100 for most part of his innings but never actually looked like he was forcing the pace. He got beaten a couple of times outside his off-stump, he got lucky with a couple of edges that avoided fielders, he played a ramp shot over the ‘keeper that could have gone wrong another day but despite that, Iyer’s innings was a case study in middle-overs batting.
With Kohli at No 3 and likely to bat with Pant often, the ‘keeper-batsman just needs to take confidence from his captain as he did in Guyana last week.
Pant and Iyer, with their contrasting styles and immense talent, are possibly the future of the Indian middle-order and the two had contrasting outings in Trinidad. If the former has to make sure he has a fruitful international career, he will have to overcome the immense scrutiny, strike a balance between being instinctive and playing sensible cricket.
The logic of playing a natural dasher at No 4 is still open for debate and the Indian think-tank might want to revisit that in the near future. But Rishabh Pant deserves his chances in India’s middle order and a long rope to go with it. In the meanwhile; the sooner he adds consistency to his unmistakable flair, the better for India.