During IPL 2018, it seemed like if there was one thing India didn’t have to worry about was the dearth of wicket-keeper batsmen. The debate for who will take the baton as India’s wicket-keeper in limited overs cricket after India’s most iconic stumper, MS Dhoni, hangs his boots has already begun. Dinesh Karthik, Ishan Kishan, Sanju Samson, Rishabh Pant –the options are plenty. But, who would have thought we would have to start looking for someone to be a wicket-keeper for the Test team first?

The future for Wriddhiman Saha remains uncertain after he sustained a serious shoulder injury. An injury like that to a wicket-keeper is bound to impact the effectiveness and probably even end careers. There is no doubt that Saha is probably the best specialist keeper in India. His 34 catches and three stumpings in the 11 matches in 2017 alone is a mere example of how the acrobatic Bengal-wicket-keeper has been splendid behind with his glovework.

In India’s case, despite their deep batting, they can’t afford to have a weak link in the form of Saha who has been suffering from injuries since the start of 2018 and hasn’t played the leading role for India’s lower middle order with the bat either. After playing 32 matches, he averages merely 30.63 and has scored 5 fifties and 3 hundreds, two out of which came in 2017 itself.

One can expect the numbers to get better but what about the body? He left the tour of South Africa early with a hamstring injury. Later, he suffered a thumb injury which forced him to sit out in multiple matches during IPL. The injury also kept him out of the one-off test against Afghanistan. Then followed the shoulder injury which ruled him out of the England Tour. With the surgery, Saha is expected to be out of action for six to eight months, which rules him out for the upcoming Test series in Australia.

With Dinesh Karthik not having much to show in the four innings with the bat coupled with the lacklustre glovework in England, Rishabh Pant was due for an early debut. In any case, if it wasn’t the Third Test at Trent Bridge, Pant’s Test debut would have come after this series, in Australia if Dinesh Karthik was, instead, persisted with for all five matches in England despite poor scores.

Even Pant’s debut had swagger

With a 20 year old Delhi-boy who is more a batsman wicket-keeper than a wicket-keeper batsman making his way to the team when the side was already 2-0 down was of course, there was bound to be a lot of discussion. More so, because Rishabh Pant isn’t exactly known for his long-form game but his swashbuckling, fit for IPL, attacking style of play. Maybe, even skipper Virat Kohli wasn’t completely convinced because we saw Pant coming in to bat after Hardik Pandya.

However, his 51-ball 24 in just his first innings, looked reassuring for people who thought he didn’t have it in him particularly because the contribution was crucial at that stage. For a minority, though, it wasn’t surprising because they had already been impressed by his recent performance for India A against the England Lions and against West Indies A where he scored 58, 61, 3 and 67* in testing conditions. He is constantly bettering his numbers in red-ball cricket. In first-class cricket, he scored 1744 runs at an average of 54.50. Even here, Pant refuses to give up on his natural game and boasts of a strike rate of around 95.24. He also has the bragging rights of scoring a triple century in Ranji Trophy at 18 years of age.

His first scoring shot in Test cricket was a six – fitting, you’d think, for a gun player stereotyped as a T20 slogger who wouldn’t know anything about patience. But honestly, he looked at ease and would have had some more numbers to boast of on debut if it hadn’t been Stuart Broad’s fiery spell. However, what makes it more interesting is that Broad gave him a nasty, long send-off but Pant looked unaffected as he walked back to the pavilion and for the rest of the match. Kohli likes his team-mates like that and that was evident as Pant was immediately promoted one position up in the next innings. Maybe it was the six to start proceedings or his confidence behind the stumps, something really had impressed Kohli.

With his rather springy, unsteady keeping technique, he showed that he was an unorthodox player in every sense. He became the first Indian keeper to complete five catches on debut, proving his naysayers wrong. No Indian keeper has claimed more than three dismissals in their first Test innings. If there still was any doubt about his skills, the left-handed keeper’s catch to dismiss Chris Woakes off Hardik Pandya would have changed that.

A perfect mélange

The time is ripe for Pant to be backed whole-heartedly. It might probably be too much to ask for when the team management and Kohli are so particular about chopping and changing but this is one player they need to give a long-rope to with no second thoughts, even if he doesn’t fare well in the start. Apart from the reasons mentioned above, the very fact that he fits into this team so well because of his excellent temperament as shown in glimpses of numerous IPL and domestic cricket performances demands that. Moreover, one thing that is sure to sit well with Kohli is Pant’s intent, a trait that he constantly emphasizes on.

Most importantly, even if Saha or Karthik are back, they are both not long-term options as they’re both 33 years old. If India has to invest, it has to be Pant, who is 13 years younger and can be groomed into being a far better cricketer. Pant has the potential that the world deserves to see it across all formats. If nothing, his presence can inspire several cricketers who believe in the power game to be versatile enough to be able to grind it out in Test cricket as well. Rishabh Pant can be a perfect mélange of T20 and Test cricket.