SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 5 MARCH, 2020
Who’s Looking After Rishabh Pant?
Has the management failed the youngster by not managing him as a resource?
It did not take long for the headlines to scream that Rishabh Pant had failed in his first outing – a warm up match – on India’s tour of New Zealand. What they failed to mention is that this was the twenty-two year old southpaw’s first innings since stepping foot in New Zealand. The young wicketkeeper-batsman is being dealt a raw deal in terms of man management and despite his early promising success, is in danger of becoming consigned to the bench and in time, out of mind.
It would not be surprising that at the end of this tour of New Zealand, Pant is accused of being a tourist on this particular India’s overseas tour. By the Indian team’s plan, he is nothing short of a passenger on a plane ride he would have, in hindsight, been better off having missed.
On closer inspection, it is apparent that the wicketkeeper-batsman has been dealt with the same hand that handled the Mahendra Singh Dhoni situation. In other words, not very well.
The Twenty20 international series flew by as India swept past New Zealand in a whitewash. New Zealand returned the favour and handed the favourites a shock defeat in the one day internationals before the series moved onto the Test series and the first ICC World Test championship contest between the two teams.
In the meantime, India played virtually every other available player in the limited overs part of the tour, while leaving Pant out in the cold. It made for strange headlines that India would rotate and try players but would not dare to blood Pant in, not after the Twenty20 international series result was a foregone conclusion and not when they could have pushed the youngster in the heat of the one day internationals and see what he is made of.
It is ironic given that this is the same set of selectors and team management that first ignored Pant for the fifteen member squad for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, despite the opportunity for Pant to be mentored as Dhoni’s under-study and thereafter brought him on as a replacement player and did not think twice to throw him into the deep end.
Two players underperformed, amongst the mass of Indian batsmen, in that fateful semi final against New Zealand in England. Yet while one has decided to take an unspecified hiatus to explore options for a possible return directly for the ICC Twenty20 World Cup slated for Australia later this year, the other is already being read out the rites that he is not in the captain’s current plans. While one player is on his way out, the latter is still wet behind the ears and considered the heir to the throne.
The conversations between the Indian selectors and the Indian team management comprising Virat Kohli, the Indian captain, and Ravi Shastri, the Indian coach, and their subsequent respective interactions with the media are befuddling at best.
On the one hand, they have kept the Indian public clueless about the AWOL situation regarding the former captain and wicketkeeper-batsman since the conclusion of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 in England last July. While Dhoni has kept postponing his return to international cricket, it seems contravening by the BCCI’s own diktat that the Indian Premier League cannot be the sole basis on which players are played to picked at the international level.
While it cannot be argued that Dhoni has a wealth of experience as an international player and captain, to suggest that he could go on a long sojourn and then plot his comeback for the flagship ICC event with only an appearance for his IPL franchisee, the Chennai Super Kings, is suspicious at best.
Furthermore, if performance is the sole criteria and Pant has been publicly castigated by the team coach, Ravi Shastri, while simultaneously promising to nurture the young one, for his reckless stroke making and sloppy wicketkeeping, then Dhoni should have been made to work for the World Cup slot particularly since the debacle in England was also revelatory and controversial in how uncharacteristic Dhoni played and how he was dropped down the batting line up in the same semi-final.
“Rishabh Pant fails in New Zealand” or so the headlines read after Pant returned to the pavilion, having scored just seven runs in his first match of India’s tour of New Zealand. The bigger dilemma that has left the cricket world pondering is if the Indian cricket team management has failed the youngster by not managing him as a resource?
Kohli talked about taking responsibility as a set up for the grooming of Pant. Shastri talked about giving the player space and room for improvement and a return to domestic cricket. MSK Prasad, the chairman of selectors, even said, “We have started backing Rishabh Pant (as first choice wicketkeeper) and we will continue to back him and see that he progresses well…this is our clear thought process, that post 2019 World Cup we are focusing on Rishabh Pant only.” He, also, stated that Pant would be provided an additional support staff in terms of a specialist wicketkeeping coach.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
Sport can be cruel. Rishabh Pant, at only twenty-two years of age, is already tasting the bitter aftertaste after injury had him benched in the recent chapter of his still nascent career in international cricket.
Shastri famously suggested that domestic cricket was perhaps the way to go for Pant. It would give him time to build himself up, and that even if not in the immediate, Pant could have a longer future a few years down the line. The question is, if the coach feels that strongly about Pant’s presence, what is Pant doing in the squad for New Zealand if the skipper has lost all faith in him as well?
It was after Pant played the first one day international against Australia before the New Zealand tour that a concussion injury forced him out of the match and the second match of the series as well. In his absence, KL Rahul not only donned the gloves but also, found a new lease of life in his batting. Rahul himself has had a rocky 2019, after public sanction over appearing with Hardik Pandya in a controversial conversation on a television show. With his form erratic at best, Rahul had lost his own footing.
If one man’s downfall is another’s windfall, nothing could describe KL Rahul’s sudden upswing in fortunes better. Pant has since not only lost his place but also, value as Virat Kohli put the situation squarely up for the public to size up.
Speaking about Rahul’s versatility adding another slot in the team’s line up for a batsman or bowler as the team requirement maybe, even as he spoke about the collective responsibility of handling Pant, Kohli stated to the reporters, “If he (Rahul) keeps like that, it opens up a lot of options for us. It’s a great thing for the team that he is becoming a multi-dimensional player.”
Be that as it may, it still does not make sense why Rishabh Pant was named the team’s only wicketkeeper in the squad list and why India would rather try out Sanju Samson than give the no.1 wicketkeeper as designated even a single match in the entire limited overs leg of the tour.
By not giving Pant a solitary chance, the message seems clear that the captain does not see the merit in handing Pant a match because he does not see Pant in the framework for the ICC Twenty20 World Cup later in the year. It is a blow but not unlike that from last year’s World Cup and Pant could take it in his stride given his age but not in the manner in which the whole scenario is being handled.
It is not so much as Pant being left out that has the cricket fraternity including the likes of Kapil Dev fuming as much as it lies in the two-faced approach to man management that is currently on witness.
After all, there is a reason why the discussion about Pant will not disappear from the public forum. While fanatic and partisan cricket fans chanted, “Dhoni, Dhoni” every time the youngster slipped up, putting not only their resistance on show but also, an unwillingness to give him a chance to learn, the truth of the matter is that Pant has already created a name for himself.
He was accused of having an indifferent Indian Premier League season last year when he scored 400 runs. But when drawn in compassion to the year he had previously when he scored 600 runs, it will look like a blip on the radar. Pant’s averages across formats in international cricket is nothing to write home about yet.
But he did become the first Indian wicketkeeper-batsman to score a Test century on the tour of England, and also, went on to score another significant Test hundred on India’s tour of Australia - the same tour during the course of which India beat Australia on their own soil in seventy years.
The Indian team management has turned the other way and the selectors did not pick Pant in the first playing squad for that tour of England either, preferring Wriddhiman Saha whose own injury management has left many perplexed.
If Pant recedes further into his own shell, taking all the criticism to heart, it is hardly likely the youngster will ever live up to potential, the glimpse of which he has already provided amply. Where Dhoni should have been handed a harsher word for his lackadaisical performance in England and had a long conversation about his future with the Indian cricket team, Pant has been castigated for doing what he did without the faith of being picked in the first squad, without having the experience and knowledge that Dhoni has and for being on a learning curve, which people forget Dhoni was on as well as a wicketkeeper when he first emerged on the scene.
Many questioned the audacity of the Delhi Capitals franchisee owner, Parth Jindal, for speaking out on social media about this baffling situation that Pant finds himself in in New Zealand. But few have questioned still the decision making skills in the selection room and in the dressing room. Instead of either playing him and let him learn or releasing him to play domestic cricket and return to his own grassroots coaching, the Indian cricket set up is in danger of being accused of eroding Pant’s confidence altogether in his cricket-wise impressionable years between twenty and twenty-two years.
This is what Jindal wrote about Pant on the sidelines on announcing that his company had signed a three-year deal with the young wicketkeeper-batsman, “Why carry @RishabhPant17 only for him to warm the bench? Surely he would have benefitted from playing against New Zealand A or domestic cricket? To see a player as talented as him not play the 5th T20 and not the 3rd ODI makes no sense #Xfactor.”
Kapil Dev spoke to the exasperation of the young man, while speaking to reporters on a previous occasion, “Pant is very talented and he cannot blame anybody. He has to look after his own career. The only way for him is to keep getting runs and prove everybody wrong. When you are talented, it is your job to provide people wrong.”
As long as Pant is warming the bench and carrying the drinks on what is becoming an insignificant tour for him, he will remain consigned to staying in the shadows of Dhoni, constantly and unfairly drawing comparisons and letting his talent stagnate away for want of better belief and handling of the situation with no opportunity to prove himself.
In the few instances he has played, Pant has shown he can be India’s mainstay wicketkeeper-batsman if he is not only given a longer rope but also, guidance and patience at the top level to help him forge his own path.
After all, in addition to the two Test centuries overseas which is a challenge for most Indian cricketers until recently, Pant, also, outpaced Dhoni in reaching 50 Test wickets from only 11 Tests compared to Dhoni’s 15. He did it in the series against West Indies in September. That is quite the feat for someone who has only played 11 Tests, 16 one day internationals and 28 Twenty20 internationals in his already see-saw career.
Former West Indies superstar batsman, Brian Lara, spoke on a television show where he talked about letting Rishabh Pant be Pant and only be twenty-one. He suggested that this kind of burden on the player was unnecessary and that he should be allowed to play and express himself without thinking it was the end of the world.
Sanjay Manjrekar, former Indian cricketer turned commentators, was once again at the receiving end of the wrath of fans when he posted on social media:
“I was pleasantly surprised by the keeping of Rahul. And Pant is no Dhoni or Saha so Rahul can challenge him for the keeper’s position.”
This is the problem that currently ails the man management of Pant. Not just Manjrekar but also, it appears that Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli are in a hurry to have Pant become Dhoni and willing to shun him while he is on his own learning curve.
Kohli said something significant on the sidelines of praising KL Rahul, “He (Rahul) has come into the slot and he has done well so we will have to persist with that a little bit and see where that takes us and not necessarily be confused about the other options we have.”
Why not then spare the confusion for the team and for Pant and let him find his own way - domestic cricket, IPL or anything else other than sitting twiddling his thumbs on the bench when he is not serving drinks to the players out on the field?