The past year has been nothing short of a roller-coaster for Rishabh Pant. He impressed with his batting in overseas Tests. He did not get selected in the original World Cup squad. He blew mostly-hot-sometimes-cold in the Indian Premier League. He eventually made his made to United Kingdom as a back-up and found himself batting at the much-debated No 4 spot. When MS Dhoni went on his sabbatical that has still not ended, he was publicly backed by the chief selector as the future in all formats. Not long after, he lost his place in the Test side to Wriddhiman Saha. He was backed by his captains Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma as well as coach Ravi Shastri at various points, as we were told to give him space, not put pressure on him.
And, here we are, the beginning of 2020, where after a concussion-forced injury break, he has lost his place in white-ball formats to KL Rahul.
On Sunday at Bay Oval, when Rohit Sharma walked out as the captain for the final T20I against New Zealand, India had a 4-0 lead in the series. Pant did not get a look in, in the fourth match while Sanju Samson opened the batting. Many thought the Delhi wicket-keeper will get a go in the fifth T20I. It was not to be, as the captain-swap was the only change the team management made. We were left seeing images of him sitting alongside Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson with their yellow training tops on: that was all the limelight Pant was going to get in this series.
Compare that to the fortune swings for KL Rahul, and the contrast is stark.
He had a mixed bag in the World Cup too, much like Rishabh Pant. He lost his place in the Test side soon after, due to lack of runs in West Indies. He continued to remain the third-choice opener for the side behind Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, not just in ODIs but also in T20Is for a brief while (a decision that looks more silly now than it did back then).
But as 2019 ended and 2020 began, Rahul has come into his own. He has seen many a new challenge thrown at him and grabbed most of them with both hands: opening the batting in white-ball formats, check; bringing a fearless approach to India’s T20I batting: check; keeping wickets with more than a fair degree of ease: check.
Finally, at the Bay Oval on Sunday, his ‘second dream’ came true as he briefly captained India with Rohit Sharma suffering a calf injury while batting. He led with a certain sense of calm during a period when the match almost slipped away from India’s grasps, thanks to a 34-run over by Shivam Dube. Rahul reacted quickly to bring Jasprit Bumrah back into the attack and the game swung decisively India’s way.
At the end of the night, he rightly walked away with the player of the series award after scores of 56, 57*, 27, 39, and 45 in the five matches, continuing his wonderful recent run of form.
So what can Rishabh Pant learn from this?
Firstly, the importance of spending time away from the international arena when in bad form. This is, perhaps, not entirely in his control as Pant has become a constant traveller with the first XI in all formats. The management could have, for instance, made him play domestic cricket when they decided Saha was going to be the ‘keeper in the home Test season. But they didn’t.
When Pant did play for Delhi in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament, he was tried out as an opener and it did not work out as the left-hander got off to good starts on tricky pitches but eventually threw his wicket away with soft dismissals.
On the other hand, Rahul showed the maturity to convert his chances at the domestic level, as Karnataka won both the 50-over and 20-over tournaments. In Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy, he scored 313 runs in 8 innings at an average of 52.16 and a Strike Rate of 155.72 while also doing a brilliant job behind the stumps; which, ironically, has seen him replace Pant in India colours.
While Pant was persisted with by India despite never really getting into form, Rahul got his head right by playing domestic cricket.
Improved shot selection
The other area where Rahul has outshone Pant is in decision-making. Of course, being five years older than the 22-year-old from Delhi, one would expect Rahul to be more mature in his approach but decision-making as a batsman is not simply down to age. It has all to do with understanding of one’s own game and knowing when to play which shot.
For Pant, it felt, in the recent past, like he was constantly in two minds when in the middle with the bat. Should he back himself and go for his shots? Should he buckle down and get his eye in? It seemed as if he had too many thoughts swirling in his head, and for every delivery he faced, he seemed to be in battle to decide which shot he must play.
This is where Rahul has improved tremendously as he showed in the T20I series against New Zealand. For some time, Rahul too had similar issues with his game. Soft dismissals were the routine as he played reverse sweeps and ramp shots and what not, when he did not need to. We saw very little of that during his five outings in New Zealand, and he still ended up as the leading scorer, with a Strike Rate of 140-plus. He has stuck to his strengths: inside the powerplay, he trusts his signature square cuts and lofted drives over cover (oh, what a shot he played in the final match!). Outside powerplays, he has looked to rotate the strike and pick the bad balls to go after.
With Pant not getting much time at the moment, there is an obvious first step for him to work on to ensure he makes a comeback: improve his decision-making. There is no such thing as a natural game in cricket, many legends can vouch to him on that fact.
It seems a long road back for Pant at the moment, but if he learned anything from watching on from the sidelines as Rahul captained India to a clean-sweep, it is that comebacks are harder than debuts but they are not impossible with the right approach.