Rishabh Pant has filled the void of MS Dhoni to a large extent as his wicketkeeping, attacking batting as well as shrewd captaincy are all coming together to make him the biggest thing in Indian cricket.
“Once you raise the bar, you have to try and maintain it. It is part and parcel of the game.” These are the words of the-then 19-year-old Rishabh Pant when he was smashing records in the Indian domestic circuit in 2016/17. At that time, Rishabh Pant was rewriting the history books for Delhi in the Ranji season. He had scored 972 runs, which included the fastest ton in the history of the tournament as well as a triple century. At that time, fresh from his exploits in the U19 World Cup in Dhaka, Pant was hailed as the next MS Dhoni in the making.
There were signs that the mantle was being passed to the right hands. Pant had aggression, he was brave, not scared of taking risks, and would clobber bowling attacks all over the world. With MS Dhoni retiring from Tests and slowly drifting away from international cricket, it became obvious that Pant would be the keeper that India would look up to in the near future.
Pant only got his opportunity as Wriddhiman Saha suffered a shoulder injury that was botched up during rehabilitation. The fact that Dinesh Karthik also could not capitalize meant Pant was the next heir-apparent to Dhoni when it came to India’s keeping options.
After a quiet debut in the T20I against England in Bangalore in 2017, Pant finally got his opportunity in the Tests against England in 2018. In that period, Pant had set the stage on fire for Delhi Daredevils in that season. This also included a splendid 97 and 78 in an exhibition of hitting that stunned the world. In the 2018 IPL, he hit a century which showed the world that he was ready for the rigors of international cricket.
He got his opportunity in the Test at the Rose Bowl against England. Pant got off the mark with a massive six. This itself was a sign of Pant’s audacity. When it misfired, it did spectacularly. When it clicked, it was simply stunning. Pant faced criticism for the rash shots he played in Southampton as India faltered in a middling chase. But, at The Oval, Pant arrived on the international stage in grand style. The left-hander blasted 114 and ensured India had something to smile for when they left England.
When India had previously toured Australia, they were weighed down by the sledging and mental disintegration tactics of the Australian team. But, under the hyper-aggressive captaincy of Virat Kohli, this was going to change. India was now taking the attack to Australia, be it sledging or on the field. The man who led India’s charge was Rishabh Pant.
His sledges behind the wicket became the stuff of legends. The barbs directed at Tim Paine, the Australian skipper, resulted in social media going into overdrive. As a keeper, he had a brilliant series. This included a record 11 dismissals in one Test. With the bat, Pant had his finest moment in Sydney when he smashed 159 and shared a record stand with Cheteshwar Pujara.
In the space of two Tests, Rishabh Pant achieved what MS Dhoni could not. He had hit two overseas centuries. In fact, he achieved a stat very few Indian keepers had ever notched up in their careers. India had found a new darling and Rishabh Pant was the toast of town.
During the 2019 ICC World Cup, Pant was surprisingly left out of the squad. But, he made a comeback after injuries to key players. Although he had a middling tournament, India could not make it to the final. With MS Dhoni now on his final throes, there were tremendous expectations from Pant. Naturally, the comparisons began to gain a lot of credibility.
The initial burden of expectations was perhaps too much for the young keeper to take. Weighed down by the exploits of Dhoni and the demands of the public, Pant’s keeping and batting both deteriorated around the 2019/20 period. When he missed one simple stumping against Bangladesh, the crowd chanted ‘Dhoni, Dhoni’ which upset the youngster no end.
When he lost his place to Wriddhiman Saha again, it seemed his magic was on the decline. But, yet again, Australia proved to be his savior. With Saha not firing on his comeback, Pant was slotted in. He had a great record in Australia and he increased it in spectacular fashion. During the run-chase in Sydney, Pant blasted 97 and kept India on course for an unlikely win. But, when he gave his wicket away in the quest for quick runs, India settled for a draw.
But, the magic of Pant came to the fore in Brisbane. Chasing a record 328 in Australia, Pant was the hero that day as he blasted 89 and created history. India had become the first team after 32 years to win at Brisbane. The side won a second consecutive series in Australia. Thanks to Pant, India no longer feared tours to Australia.
With Australia dominated twice thanks to Pant, he set about fixing his record in India. The left-hander had twice missed out on centuries during the series against West Indies in 2018. But, against England, Pant set that record straight. During the Ahmedabad Test, he unleashed an audacious reverse sweep off James Anderson to bring up his century.
With Delhi Capitals, ever since Pant has taken on the senior role in the side, the franchise has scaled heights which the previous avatar could not do. Thus, Pant’s journey to becoming the vital cog in the Indian cricket team set-up is all but complete.
The key for Pant will be to sustain the consistency. His reckless nature, under the guise of super-aggression, might prove to be his undoing on some occasions. But, what he can make it up for is the sheer tour-de-force for the occasion. Given the moment, given the situation, Pant can be India’s ultimate match-winner. All that at the age of 24. Now, that is some serious talent.