It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly the crowd thought it was fair game to go after Rishabh Pant. Sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly but in almost every match, they make him the object of their derision.
In the second T20I match against the West Indies at Thiruvananthapuram, the loudest cheer as the Indian team came out to warm-up was not for Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma as they walked out for the session. Instead, it was local boy Sanju Samson who was the object of the crowd’s affection. And that was absolutely fine.
But, it was a little later in the game – when Pant dropped a catch – that things got ugly. To be fair, it was a tough chance. The ball seemed to be going down the leg side, following the batsman and Pant had moved in that direction as well.
When suddenly the batsman decided to guide the ball to third man, Pant had to change direction, as was evident from the replays, and quickly move in the right direction. The batsman didn’t play it as well as he would have wanted and it was catchable for the keeper.
Pant got his hand to it and the ball seemed to have nestled into the gloves well enough for Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the bowler, to pump his firsts a little. But, the ball popped out when the keeper’s elbow hit the ground hard.
Bhuvneshwar was disappointed — it was the second chance that had gone down in the over after Washington Sundar had missed a skier earlier. Kohli was livid too. But it was at this point that the crowd decided to weigh in by booing Pant and chants of ‘Sanju, Sanju’.
This immediately irked Virat Kohli. He couldn’t quite believe that the crowd was booing an India player and gestured by holding a finger to his lips (asking the crowd to stop with the booing) and instead asked them to support the team.
At the pre-match press conference on Thursday before the first T20I, Kohli had defended Pant: “I think it’s a collective responsibility for everyone around us as well to give that player (Rishabh Pant) some space.
Kohli had added: “If he misses a chance or something, you know, people can’t shout MS’ (MS Dhoni) name in the stadium, it’s not respectful if I have to put it that way, because no player would like that to happen. You’re playing in your own country and you should get support, rather than thinking what mistake is he going to make, no one wants to be in that position.”
But clearly, his words seem to be having no impact on fans. Neither at the ground nor on social media.
Many on Twitter felt that Samson should have played because he knew the home conditions better. Coming in a close second among the reasons why Pant should be dropped was his inconsistency. The third was his poor choice of shots. The fourth was that Pant’s knock of 33 off 22 balls wasn’t good enough… Sanju could have done better. The trolling is brutal. Almost fashionable.
And while Pant can avoid social media, there simply is no avoiding the Dhoni chants or booing in the crowd. He tends to always have a smile on his face – even after he messes up – but this cannot be easy for the 22-year-old.
Kohli and Rohit Sharma want Pant to get more support. Meanwhile, BCCI president Sourav Ganguly feels Pant must figure his own way out of the current predicament.
“If I were Virat Kohli, I would just let him go through it, let him hear it and find ways to succeed. Everybody must remember that you don’t get MS Dhoni’s every day. He is a once-in-a-generation cricketer,” Ganguly said at India Today Conclave East 2019 on Saturday.
“MS Dhoni also, when he started, was not MS Dhoni. It took him 15 years to be MS Dhoni. It will take Rishabh Pant also close to 15 years to be even close to what MS Dhoni is today,” he added.
Clearly, Ganguly believes in throwing youngsters into the deep end. He did that with Harbhajan Singh and so many others he’d backed during his time as Indian skipper. And perhaps, there is a simple logic to his words as well: what doesn’t break you, will only make you stronger.
But the challenge for Pant will be to not get mentally drawn into the debate. Head coach Ravi Shastri will no doubt be in his ear and that might drown out most of the other noises. But how will Pant counter the voices in his own head?
Pant, at his best, is all about confidence. It was the confidence that drew people to him. The confidence that allowed him to smash the bowlers around the park and take risks that others would not. It allowed him to be outrageous. But now he seems tentative (this despite slamming the second ball he faced in the second T20I for a six), less instinctive and shackled.
At some point, the pressure will tell... perhaps it already has. But what the Delhi ‘keeper does from this point on will define him in a way all those knocks in the IPL never could. Sometimes, life is all about hanging in until the tide begins to turn. In this tough period, there is a lesson waiting to be learnt but can Pant make the most of the opportunity?
After all, a sportsperson would rather win over the crowds than silence them.