Rishabh Pant’s form, or the manner in which he was being dismissed, was a hot topic of conversation going into the third Twenty20 International at Bengaluru. Even among former players, opinions were split. There was a special talent in our hands, ushering India into the post-Dhoni era with ease. And like the former India captain, he was capable of scoring runs in a thrilling, instinctive manner.
But there was a different version of Pant that came to the crease on Sunday. Maybe the scrutiny had affected him after all. Now, the onus was on him to steady the Indian innings after Shikhar Dhawan and skipper Virat Kohli were dismissed in quick succession. Short ground, partisan crowd and the South African bowlers were looking far from testing. Ideal, right?
Except that this tied down, timid version of ‘fearless to careless... to careful’ Pant wasn’t the reason why he was picked in the first place. Tabraiz Shamsi was carted around by Dhawan in his first over. And on another day, Andile Phehlukwayo’s medium-pacers would have allowed Pant to use the long handle to good effect.
Pant got a few singles and twos in consecutive overs to start his innings. With his Delhi Daredevils captain Shreyas Iyer also finding the going tough, the scoring rate dropped. South Africa got a foothold in the contest and were doing enough to make India’s life uncomfortable.
Briefly. Very, very briefly, Pant went back to basics and the capacity crowd at the Chinnaswamy Stadium let out a roar. Inventive and brave, the young wicketkeeper surprised pacer Dwaine Pretorius and scooped him for a six behind square. It was not a great delivery. Even the menacing Kagiso Rabada (having a rare off day despite three wickets in his kitty) felt bad for his IPL teammate. Pant was handed a juicy full-toss early in his innings, which he duly obliged by putting away to the boundary line.
With seven overs left in the innings and a long batting-order to fall back on, the stage was set for Pant to now unleash in a manner only he can. Alas, left-arm spinner Bjorn Fortuin piled on the misery. The 21-year-old didn’t play the ball on its merit. It was a quicker delivery and a lofted drive was probably not on. The ball went straight to long-off.
The worst, though, was yet to come. As was the case in Mohali during a bilateral series against Australia earlier in the year, irate spectators had enough and loud chants of “Dhoni! Dhoni!” could be heard.
This error was of Pant’s own doing, this time as a ‘keeper. Deepak Chahar and he were convinced that opener Reeza Hendricks was dismissed leg-before and a review was taken. It was an embarrassingly bad one with the ball missing the leg-stump by a mile. Then, Quinton de Kock and South Africa made easy work of the modest target.
For Pant to shoulder all the blame will be harsh. And maybe Gautam Gambhir and Sunil Gavaskar do have a point about the senior players putting an arm around his shoulder and telling him not to be weighed down every time he goes through a bad day like this.
And the defeat was not his doing alone. After a steady powerplay, almost everything went wrong for the hosts. Some of the dismissals in that alarming middle-order slump was uncharacteristic. For all the hundreds that Kohli has scored in his second home, he looked surprisingly out of sorts and could not get the momentum going following Rohit Sharma and Dhawan’s breezy start. The captain holed out for an underwhelming 15-ball nine.
There were to be no fireworks from Shreyas Iyer this time and the Pandya brothers, collectively, had an outing to forget in a format they own. By this time, South Africa had their tail up. Hardik was forced to target the boundary at cover point, something he is not entirely comfortable with at this point. Ravindra Jadeja briefly purred before departing.
But what about the Indian bowling?
Not once was De Kock forced out of his comfort zone. Navdeep Saini’s short deliveries were duly dispatched over the ropes. The spinners – Washington Sundar, Jadeja and Krunal Pandya – barely made an impact. It was the same wicket where Fortuin and Shamsi had suffocated India. There was barely a sign of a wicket and the lengths were too short. For a team traditionally not that comfortable with spin, the aforementioned trio should have fared a lot better on a surface where the ball wasn’t exactly coming on to the bat.
Maybe the total wasn’t big enough to pose a threat after all. And in the grand scheme of things, this T20I may not even be a game that Kohli and Co would lose sleep over but it was his decision to bat first that came back to haunt India. The Indian skipper had set a challenge for his batsmen to set a score after being convinced of their abilities to chase.
In the post-match presentation, Kohli shed further light on his decision at the toss. “In T20 cricket chasing is relatively easier because in other formats you need to bat longer and string partnerships. Here, a decent partnership of 40-50 in no time can take the game away from you.”
In the end, it was a bit of an anti-climax as Bengaluru continues to aid visitors. Unfortunately, the brickbats will fly poor Pant’s way again. Be it the toss, the middle-overs, the review or the bowling, this was a contest that went wrong in almost every aspect for India.