Rishabh Pant packs power, patience and new-found maturity to emerge as a hero
Rishabh Pant had gone from big talent with rough edges to a man on a mission in Australia even before he scripted the climax of the iconic Test series on Tuesday. His sensational, unbeaten 89 that steered India to a historic victory at the Gabba, and sealed a second successive series triumph in Australia, gave the finishing touches to his transformation.
As his winning shot off Josh Hazlewood rolled to the long-off boundary, two things stood out. It was timed rather than powered, and the 23-year-old was a picture of calm as his delirious teammates raced towards him in celebration.
What difference can a month make? KL Rahul had stepped in as keeper-batsman in the limited-overs series and Wriddhiman Saha, clearly, the better keeper, played the first Test at Adelaide. The shake-up after India were routed for 36 led to Pant’s recall; being a better batsman and a left-hander, he was expected to offer something different.
Pant did not look back. In the Melbourne victory that followed, his 40-ball 29 and a crucial 57-run partnership — one of three crucial stands — with skipper Ajinkya Rahane (he hit India’s only century of the series) put India on course.
At the SCG, Pant was out for 36 in the first innings after taking a nasty hit on his left elbow. But he braved pain in the nets to be ready after Australia set a target of 407, confident of bowling India out.
Watch | India Vs Australia: Pant, Gill lead India to historic win at Gabba, seal series
On Tuesday, as India inched towards an improbable fourth-innings target of 328, with 324 to get on the final day on a pitch with cracks, the visitors’ hope and the home team’s fears were on Pant.
He had turned the chase at the SCG on its head with a thrilling 97 on the final day, dominating a 148-run fourth-wicket stand with an increasingly aggressive Pujara. It was only his dismissal, before the second new ball was taken, that pushed R Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari into a monumental effort for a draw.
There was a big change though. Pant took time to get set, scoring five runs off the first 34 balls he faced. The new determination to take responsibility was evident. He then raced to 50 off 64 balls, pushing the Aussies on the defensive.
In Brisbane, young opener Shubman Gill’s breezy 91 and a dogged Pujara in their 114-run second-wicket stand had set an excellent base. Though Rahane, looking for runs, fell, Pant took over. Once again, he played himself in.
It was a battle of wits with off-spinner Nathan Lyon. As the spinner flighted deliveries outside off-stump and held back their speed, Pant patiently waited for balls into his hitting zone. Sent at No.5 ahead of Mayank Agarwal to force the pace, he was sure where his off-stump was, leaving deliveries close to stumps to frustrate the spinner in his 100th Test.
He steadily increased his scoring tempo. Pant raised 61 runs with Pujara (56) and 37 with Mayank Agarwal. A flat six off Lyon signalled that he was ready for the big push. A decisive partnership of 53 followed with Washington Sundar (22) that all but got the job done.
He played a gentle hoick over backward short leg, falling in the follow-through, late in his innings. Pant first proved his batting in his debut Test series in England with 114 at the Oval in 2018. And his 159 not out at Sydney helped India forced a draw and seal the historic series win the same year. But he was criticised after that for throwing away his wicket too often; one particularly weak spot was a tendency to swing to square-leg. That shot was his undoing even in the 2019 World Cup in England. At the Gabba, Australia fielders waited in vain, but the swing never came.
Unlike a flat SCG pitch, Lyon was a threat on a pitch with cracks. But Pant’s focus never wavered — he came with India 162 adrift — even when the asking rate was five an over.
Like in the SCG Test, Pant scored only 10 off his first 31 balls. He and Pujara played out four maiden overs on the trot either side of tea. He let Lyon and Cummins win the ego battle -- for the Gabba war had to be won. And, in the end, he was grinning brightly in the Brisbane dusk.
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- It was a bit of a surprise when England decided to play only three specialist bowlers in the fourth Test, picking batsman Dan Lawrence in place Jofra Archer who had played in the day-night Test but as it turned out Archer was forced to sit due to an injury.