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SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 14 MAY, 2019

Rishabh Pant Forces Re-Think about World Cup Selection

Pant has been making waves


Praise for the dynamic young wicketkeeper has been coming in fast and thick. Even as the inner circle of the Indian cricket fraternity seems set in their choice of selection for India’s reserve wicketkeeper for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, Rishabh Pant is certainly not making it easy to look the other way.

If the oft heard cricket cliché “timing is everything” holds true, then it would appear that the Indian think tank missed the point altogether as far as the twenty-one year old is concerned.

If moments on the field define a player, Pant made a spectacular point in somewhat understated fashion. Emphatic enough, Pant was able to convince his Delhi Capitals’ captain, Shreyas Iyer, about a decision on the field that may not have mattered much in the overall context of the match but reiterated the position of the wicketkeeper and more importantly, of Pant’s acumen in being the navigator and perfect foil to the captain.

In the eliminator match of the Indian Premier League season 2019 that saw the newly reanointed Delhi Capitals win the match against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, in the closing stages of the first innings, Pant effected a run out with the help of the bowler, Keemo Paul, who collided into Deepak Hooda running to the non-striker’s end.

Although the appeal for dismissal was made, Iyer withdrew the appeal only to have a vehement Pant convince the captain otherwise since it was the batsman who had run onto the pitch and the bowler was well within his right to stand his ground. In the end, Pant prevailed and rightly so, the spirit of the game upheld by adhering to the rule of law.

It was just one moment to highlight what has been a rather stupendous season for the Delhi Capitals, loaded with promising young cricketers to potentially shape India’s future, not least of them being Pant, his batting abilities keeping Delhi in the hunt even in the one sided contest that was Delhi’s final match in the season just one short of the final.

Those that claim that the IPL has never been selection criteria when picking the national team are selling a lie. Karthik himself has stayed in the reckoning because of some of his performances in the shortest format of the game. Although Twenty20 is no barometer for a fifty overs game, Pant’s performances for the Delhi Capitals speaks to temperament, tenacity and the willingness to take criticism in one’s stride and learn from it.

In this season alone, Pant has been making waves. If the last season saw him score 684 runs at an average of 52.61 with five half-centuries to his name, this year Pant has created even more of an aura for himself as a mainstay batsman, astute wicketkeeper and a handy person to have in the think tank. His 488 runs from sixteen matches this season with a strike rate of 162.66 have been instrumental in getting Delhi Capitals out of the rut and into the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

His 24 dismissals in one season alone have eclipsed the Sri Lankan Kumar Sangakkara’s record of nineteen in a single IPL year. If ever there was a personification to the quality called X factor, Pant has been nearly it, in rampaging form, belligerent yet beguiling, charming yet sly. That he can be a chirper behind the stumps to upset the batsman at the crease and yet have a funny bone was evident in the interaction between Australia’s Tim Paine and Pant on India’s tour of Australia.

Pant’s rising stature is undeniable as is the growing clamour for the young man to be blooded into the Indian cricket team sooner than later in a proverbial case of striking when the iron is hot. That this comes from some rather loud, weighted voices within the cricket fraternity itself cannot be undermined.

Sir Vivian Richards wrote in his column, “This (IPL 2019) season they (Delhi Capitals) have been the one of the most exciting teams to watch. The young Prithvi Shaw and Rishabh Pant play delightful shots and show no signs of being intimidated by the occasion or opposition, a trait I think is crucial to winning consistently.”

Ricky Ponting, the Delhi Capitals head coach and Australia’s assistant coach for the ICC Cricket World Cup in England, led with the statement that Australia would be relieved not to be playing Pant in high testimony to the youngster. Speaking of the criticism about Pant’s shortcomings of being somewhat impetuous as a finisher, Ponting shot down detractors, “There have been questions asked about whether we should have dropped certain players in some matches, but I believe when you have talented players in your squad, you just keep backing them.”

Although Pant’s phenomenal performances have drawn high praise from cricket’s international fraternity so early into his embryonic career, Pant has had to swallow a bitter pill as MSK Prasad, the chairman of selectors was caught on a sticky wicket, delivering the news of Pant’s non-selection for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 in a rather unconvincing fashion: “Well, it’s definitely a case which we debated at length, and all of us in unison felt that either Pant or DK (Dinesh Karthik) will be coming into the playing eleven, if only Mahi (Mahendra Singh Dhoni) is injured. So, at that juncture if it is a crucial match, like a semi-final, wicketkeeping also matters. So that’s the reason why we went ahead with Karthik, otherwise Pant was almost there.”

Further emphasizing the confusion, Prasad seemed to be thrust into the deep end, digging a bigger hole for himself and anyone who put him there in the first place, “The situation that was discussed among the selection committee is that one of them will play in the eleven provided MS is injured. Under such a situation, in crunch matches, who is the best guy who can handle pressure? That is the reason which went in favour of Karthik, otherwise Pant is full of talent. There is a lot of time for him. It’s unfortunate that he missed out.”

But herein lies the problem.

Nine lives. A long rope. Terms such as these have been associated with Dinesh Karthik who has made comebacks at the most unexpected times, the ICC Cricket World Cup being no exception. While Pant has increasingly made the selection panel look sheepish, Karthik’s time at the Kolkata Knight Riders seemed to be going downhill as was his team’s chances in the middle of defeat and dissension.

There was nothing surefooted about Karthik’s place in the Indian team, not when Dhoni’s star was on the rise and neither in present times when Karthik has continued to be something of a-hit-and-a-miss story, drawing praise as well as criticism in the short stints with the Indian cricket team that have come his way.

That uncertainty comes across evidently, carried into the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 with the selection panel’s vocalization that either Karthik or the rookie, Vijay Shankar, would make a solid no.4 simply when neither of them have hung around long enough to be sufficiently earmarked for that crucial spot in India’s batting line up.

There is something to throwing people into the deep end if only to test their mettle. If the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 in England would not have necessarily been Rishabh Pant’s litmus test with Mahendra Singh Dhoni a fixture in the wicketkeeper-batsman’s role in the playing eleven, it could have nevertheless served as a great platform for Pant as the ideal understudy to one of the world’s most robust wicketkeeper-batsmen.

Arguably there could not have been a better mentor and catalyst in the Indian dressing room for Pant than Dhoni himself. Nearly thirty-eight years of age and pushing the limit as far as fitness of wicketkeeper-batsmen is concerned, the former Indian is undoubtedly playing his last ICC Cricket World Cup. Having already retired abruptly from Test cricket midway through India’s tour of Australia in 2014, that Dhoni even stretched himself this far is rather astounding.

Given the uncanny fashion in which he has built his repertoire, as a bludgeoning batsman more than an efficient wicketkeeper in his early days in international cricket, Dhoni seemed India’s and even cricket’s answer in response to Australia’s Adam Gilchrist, a maverick who set a blistering pace for wicketkeeper-batsmen everywhere. That Pant is in the mould to carve his own niche, he could have certainly used this opportunity well to pick his predecessor’s brains.

With India looking for a dangerous floater – a pinch hitter, and someone who can shoulder the responsibility of a no.4, Pant seemed as good a candidate as any worthy of the trial. Being a left hander, Pant could have been well placed in India’s middle order if only to unsettle the opposition fielding plans and the bowler’s rhythm with constant readjustment. Although limited overs cricket is a different beast from the other two formats, Pant has shown wherewithal, scoring two Test centuries in the short time since his debut in England and Australia last year as if to highlight his ability to adapt in foreign conditions.

Pant’s selection was always going to be touch and go. But what made him seem just a doorway away from selection lay in the pragmatic logic that if India were to carry a tourist on board, they might as well have picked Pant instead of the thirty-three year old Dinesh Karthik since Pant is the face of the future and would have had an invaluable time in the dressing room standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the former Indian captain from whom he appeared to be taking notes even after Delhi Capitals’ defeat to the Chennai Super Kings after the second qualifier, seeking out Dhoni for advice and technical input.

Pant highlighted the frustration of measuring up to Dhoni when faced with criticism over his missing the ICC Cricket World Cup, stating he was still young and could not be expected to think “like a thirty year old man.” Sanjay Manjrekar posted what is essentially the crux to treating Pant as Pant, “Penny dropped for me last night. Rishabh is this generation’s Viru (Virender Sehwag). Batsman who needs to be treated differently…which is to just let him be. You either pick him or drop him but never try and change him.”

As if highlighting the point about Pant’s big hitting ability, he has garnered 94 sixes to Virender Sehwag’s 85 playing for the Delhi team, in another evidence that India may not need a finisher to stitch together an innings if they have powerful hitters and stroke makers capable of carving a match winning innings on their own as Pant does and attested to by former Indian cricketer and Delhi Capitals talent scout, Praveen Amre.

Sourav Ganguly, former Indian captain and the advisor of the Delhi Capitals, signed off that “India will miss Pant at the World Cup”, after previously reiterating that although this was an opportunity lost, Pant was young and there would be many more World Cups in the future.

Former England captain, Michael Vaughan, expressed his astonishment about Pant’s omission with these words on social media, “How is @rishabPant777 not in the World Cup squad….Pretty sure #India still have time to change!!!!!” He even added the hashtag #Bonkers.

The World Cup can be a great difference, a game changing experience for someone on the cusp of realizing his own potential and of how far he can go. What indeed is most baffling is that if India were indeed pitching it to play safe, almost to a fault, at the ICC Cricket World Cup in England, by the extension of that logic alone, Vijay Shankar should not even have featured in the squad of fifteen, having never been tried in the no.4 spot to begin with.

Yet in the words of the chief selector, Shankar seems almost a certainty to play for that place, although Karthik gets thrown into the mix in that discussion almost every single time to highlight that confusion. In the same breath though, there is simply no room for India to accommodate Rishabh Pant, the obvious understudy and the heir apparent to Dhoni! It is indeed mindboggling.
 

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