Rishabh Pant - Driving in the Parallel Lane
On a modern cricketer and an old dictionary of the game that we need to ditch
At the post-match presentation, Rishabh Pant wore a half-smile. With eyes squinting from the sun and one hand behind his back, he spoke of his improved wicketkeeping as a product of heavy practice and carry-over confidence from his batting. Harsha Bhogle, still shocked from the day before, asked him about the reverse flick against Jimmy Anderson. Will you play it again, especially if you're on 89?
This is where Pant broke into a full, beaming smile and said - “if the opportunity arises, why not.”
Rishabh Pant's reverse flick will be canonised into highlight reels and looped videos. It will be emblazoned on the host broadcaster's series review for weeks. Hell, it might even make the 2021 year-in-review tape. The context of that shot -- James Anderson, a shiny new ball, and a match in the balance -- makes it an unmissable event. The word everyone seems to stretch for is audacity. It is the same word they use for the entirety of his attack on Anderson in that period.
Audacity points towards an ability to ride risk. It has connotations of low-percentage options executed well. That's where most observers are reading Pant wrong. His strategy against Anderson itself is a good illustration of why he isn't taking as many risks as you think he is.
Day Two. The fourth Test of a series England cannot win. They can, however, win the match and square the series 2-2 -- an excellent result against this Indian team by any stretch.
It is 4pm. On the western edges of India, this hour isn't a prelude to a cool evening but an extension of a steaming afternoon. Ben Stokes' neck and arms have turned red from pounding the pitch a hundred and eight times over the day. He can barely walk from the stumps to the slips.
India are 223-6, leading by 18. Joe Root calls for the second new ball. At the fag end of a long, hot day, England finally have what they want. So does Rishabh Pant.
England entered this match with three specialist bowlers and Stokes. One of their two spinners, whom they had summarily dropped after the first Test, cannot find a rhythm. They begun the day well though, giving nothing but taking away India's middle order for a combined 44 runs. Since then, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, and Washington Sundar had dragged India to parity.
On this pitch, parity isn’t good enough. India would have to bat fourth, and anything beyond 150 would take an olympian chase. The match is well within sight for England. With the new ball and Anderson, England can smell a batting collapse.
Anderson bowls with the accuracy of a spinner. He can hit the good-length spot with his eyes closed, allowing his supple wrists to generate lateral movement to challenge both edges of a batsman.
And so he strides in, targeting the same spot, with three slips waiting for an outside edge and a short mid-wicket for the flick. From behind the umpire, his left leg propels his body into a perfect side-on leap. Rishabh Pant has begun a walk forward.
This is where Anderson must have wished he was indeed a spinner. He would have had more time to adjust his line or length. For a fast bowler, the momentum generated by the run-up and leap is way too much. His muscle memory kicks in and does what it has been trained for over two decades. The ball lands on the perfect good-length spot.
Seam bowlers eye that spot because of the horizontal space for lateral movement. Any fuller and it is too close to the batsman's hitting arc; any shorter and the batsman has too much time. For Pant, this delivery which could otherwise pose a danger to his pads, stumps, or outside edge, is now a half-volley in his hitting arc. Straight drive.
Boom. Four. Fetch it.
On commentary, Harsha Bhogle and Sunil Gavaskar can't believe their eyes. They use that word again. Audacity. They garnish it with words like fearlessness and bravery. They are on the edges of their seats and believe every Rishabh Pant stroke is an exercise in just that -- bringing audiences to the edge. Gavaskar, possibly India's greatest ever Test batsman, urges him to ditch the adrenalin and play smartly.
That stroke by Rishabh Pant was the smartest option he could have chosen. It was not, like the surrounding discourse would suggest, a callow youngster throwing caution to the wind. Pant had walked down the track because he trusted the world's most successful fast bowler to do what he is best at. He tackled Anderson like a spinner -- get to the pitch of the ball and negate all movement.
Rishabh Pant has now built a cupboard of red-ball batting performances that would be the envy of most retired cricketers. He had a triple century in first-class cricket before making his Test debut. He knows how to play the long game. We look at his methods as risky because they contrast with the dictionary of Test cricket we and all older generations have grown up on. He is showing us a new lexicon, and we keep classing him as a deux Shahid Afridi -- so lost in his own ability that match situations are secondary.
Against Anderson, Pant was playing with caution. He was choosing his best responses against a bowler who he knew wouldn't err. Against the harder ball, he could trust the bounce. You can negate a threat by evading it; but you can also walk a parallel lane, where the threat is unlikely to reach you.
Pant will fail too, there is no doubt. Everyone fails. He will sometimes look silly for his shot selection. We will do well to remember that his failures are not the product of carelessness, but wrong execution. He cares and calculates and does all the things more technically correct batsmen do. As Jimmy Anderson's face on his walk back to the bowling mark will tell you, Pant just does it differently.
Rishabh Pant knew what he was doing against Nathan Lyon at Sydney and Brisbane, just as he know what he was doing against Jimmy Anderson at Ahmedabad. Our analysis of him is what needs care.