There is a palpable tension every time Rishabh Pant comes out to bat. If you are sleepy, you become alert. If you were doing something else, you’ll stop and watch. If you are the opposition, you brace yourself because regardless of the match situation, he will back himself to take you on.
When Pant walked out to join Cheteshwar Pujara in the middle, India were in big trouble. England had scored 578 in their first innings and in reply, the hosts were tottering at 72/4 with Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane back in the dressing room.
The match situation — given how far behind the eight-ball India were — perhaps called for a little calm; for two batsmen to get stuck in and put on a partnership that would not just frustrate the England bowlers but also help play out time.
[Archive]: Rishabh Pant, the maddest of them all
But as usual, the book of conventional wisdom was thrown out of the window rather quickly by Pant. He defended the first three balls he faced but then looked to attack. Two poor deliveries from Jofra Archer, one slipping down the leg-side and the other short and wide, got him going.
But he saved his best for Jack Leach. Having spent more than 190 overs behind the wickets, Pant knew what the wicket would do and in a breath-taking calculated assault, he went after the left-arm spinner.
Two consecutive sixes in the 32nd over showed that Pant would attack the ball turning into him without mercy. The first one flew into the stands but the second just cleared the ropes. Once again, all those watching wondered whether he would temper his aggression.
Watch highlights: Bess puts England in control as Pant, Pujara’s half centuries prop up India
Well, Pant had no such doubts in his mind. The first ball of the 34th over from Leach was smoked over long-on for six. In four balls from Leach, he had hit three sixes.
Ajit Agarkar, in the commentary box, had been advocating that Pant needed to take the match situation in mind but even he couldn’t help but be amazed: “I expected him to attack, I didn’t expect him to try and hit every ball for a six.”
Still, the question on everyone’s mind was how long he could keep this up. England had runs to play with and they could afford to buy a wicket or two.
But Pant continued to play the only way he knows how. In doing so, he forced England to spread the field. The changed strategy of the visitors helped Pujara too as they were more singles on offer.
While the runs did come very quickly, Pant wasn’t mindlessly attacking either. He went after Leach but showed a lot more respect to Dom Bess. Against the pacers too, he was prepared to wait for the bad ball but perhaps even the bowlers knew that if they got it wrong, he would punish them.
Pant forgets the match situation and he makes all those watching forget too. For a while, even England seemed to get sucked in.
Inevitably, one couldn’t help but be reminded of Virender Sehwag’s approach against spinners. The former India opener would attack the slower bowlers just as mercilessly but behind that aggression, there was always a plan. He always wanted to force the bowlers to bowl in a certain way and he would do that by messing with their minds... attacking a certain length and then picking on the others too until the bowler would have little idea of where to bowl to him.
Maybe Pant doesn’t have the same strategy yet but by telegraphing his intentions to the bowler, he is making sure they are always thinking of different possibilities. And that is half the battle won.
Gill played as he usually does and Rohit was dismissed before he truly got going but Kohli and Rahane were not at their fluent best and that was maybe because they were playing the match situation and not on the bowler’s merit.
With Pant, given the success he had in Australia, there are no such doubts at the moment. Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri have encouraged him to play in this manner and he showed once again that he can prove to be a very formidable opponent indeed.
The left-hander was eventually dismissed for 91 (88 balls, 9 fours, 5 sixes), caught in the deep off Bess. He seemed angry as he walked off – there was a hundred for the taking and India still need to do a lot to save the Test – but he and many who watched his innings would have had no regrets about his approach.
Between Pant’s way and the other way, England took charge in Chennai. But without his counterattack, the scoreboard would have undoubtedly made for grimmer reading.