MUMBAI: Recently, former Pakistan wicketkeeper Rashid Latif had a simple explanation for Rishabh Pant: ” Woh apne liye nahin khel raha, woh humare aapke liya khel raha hai (He’s not playing for himself. He’s playing to entertain us).” Indeed, the wicketkeeper-batsman is now box office, and a new reason for cricket fans across the world to switch on the TV when India are playing, even though the team has the likes of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in its ranks.
Pant’s return to India’s T20 International team has infused a certain amount of excitement in the five-match series against England in Ahmedabad, which kicks off from Friday night. It can hardly be termed as coincidence that India’s surge since that all-time low of 36 in the first Test against Australia in Adelaide in December started with Pant’s return to the Test team. If his 97-run knock in Sydney earned the team a brave draw, his unbeaten 89 in the fourth Test in Brisbane helped a depleted India pull off a miraculous chase to ensure a second successive series win Down Under.
His reverse lap off England’s legendary fast bowler James Anderson in the fourth and final Test in Ahmedabad is being hailed as the ‘shot of 2021’. It was the jewel in the crown of his match-winning hundred, and prompted Team India coach Ravi Shastri to say: “What Pant has done for India in the last 2-3 months, no one would ever do in a lifetime.”
At last, Pant seems to be fulfilling expectations of filling MS Dhoni’s big shoes. Some have even compared him to being the “left-handed Virender Sehwag”. On Wednesday, India vice-captain Rohit Sharma echoed what fans feel now: Pant’s time has come. “He can go from strength to strength. There is no looking back. So far, he has done exceptionally well from Australia to the home series against England recently. I don’t see anything stopping him, unless you guys start putting pressure on him,” Rohit said.
As someone who himself faced the pressure of expectations and a reasonable amount of failures before he found his calling as a destructive opener in limited-overs cricket, Rohit understands the need for the team to allow Pant to play his natural, attacking game, even if, at times, that could mean getting out to a rash stroke.
“It’s important for him to be himself. He likes to enjoy his game. You must have seen it on the ground. That is what we as the team management expect from him. Just go and enjoy the game, and do what you like to do,” said Rohit. Stroke-players need the license to fly like a free bird, and Rohit, being an aggressive player himself, knows the ‘freedom’ that Pant needs at this stage of his career. “The good thing about his game right now is he is starting to understand the game situation, something that he ticks as a box. He has looked very good in keeping, in his approach, or batting. This is another series which will take his confidence a notch higher. It’s important that we let him be alone, and allow him to play with freedom. He needs that freedom.”
In the past, when he was struggling, Pant was often panned by the media for both his lousy glovework, which seems to have improved by a few notches in this series, and failures with the bat – he scored just 343 runs in 14 firstname.lastname@example.org in IPL-13, and was kept out of the limited-overs teams for Australia after putting on too much weight.
Rohit urged the press to “leave him alone”. “If we can let Rishabh Pant be Rishabh Pant, he will come out and give you that performance. I’ve said it in the past many times that ‘leave Rishabh Pant alone’ and he will give those performances.”