Rishabh Pant, pauses and then purrs for a glorious century
A good 40 minutes before he even walked out to bat, Rishabh Pant already knew which bowler he was going to face for his first ball in this Ahmedabad Test—James Anderson. Not just that, Pant also knew when he was going to face Anderson—off the final ball of the 38th over. This was of course because the great England fast bowler had dismissed Ajinkya Rahane (an assured Rahane at that) at the stroke of lunch on Day 2, with a ball to go in his 12th over.
As the players left the ground for lunch, Anderson had choked India’s flow with surreal numbers: 11.5 overs, nearly seven of those maidens, conceding all of nine runs and claiming two wickets. That, along with the early dismissals of Cheteshwar Pujara (by Jack Leach) and Virat Kohli—the India captain getting out for his second duck of this series after he nudged a nasty bouncer by Ben Stokes to ‘keeper Ben Foakes—had left the Indian innings in tatters, with the score reading 80/4 at lunch. It may not seem so now with the crutch of hindsight, but at that point of the day and game, England’s first innings score of 205 runs seemed a long way away.
The narrative at lunch on Day 2 almost seemed set up for a trailblazing Pant hundred—a daring and swashbuckling counterattack from the word go. But again, that wasn’t the case when he walked out to face his long-awaited first ball post-lunch, for Anderson had his tail up and India had lost their entire top-order barring a very cautious Rohit Sharma. In such a scenario, Pant was first about to prove just how reliable he could also be while employing the dead bat. Only much later, after a large swathe of time had been spent blocking and well after ensuring that India had closed in enough on England’s first innings total did Pant cut loose to bring up his first international hundred in India.
And what a hundred it was—way greater than the sum of the big shots that tend to make the post-match highlight reels. Like when England took the second new ball and Pant welcomed it by charging Anderson first ball and smashing it for four over long off, which led to a boundary every other ball for a couple of overs, including a reverse lap over the ‘keeper’s head against an astonished Anderson. All of that was terrific, which, apart from sending the clusters of spectators in the stands into a tizzy, was also the biggest reason why India went to stumps with their score on 294/7. That 89-run lead has now all but ensured that India cannot lose this match.
But the Pant that stood out on Friday was him in a rather unnatural role; the defending Pant. In his own words, he said at the end of day’s play that the plan was “to get 206, one more than England, and then get as many runs as possible after that.” That plan worked like a charm, and so did the one he had when he walked out to bat with Sharma immediately after lunch.
“The plan was just to build a partnership with Rohit, that was the only thing on my mind,” Pant said to the broadcaster. And how would one do that? “If the bowlers are bowling well then respect that and try and take singles.” This is precisely what Pant did for the first half of his stay at the crease on Wednesday. In his first 31 balls there was nearly no aggression and both the boundaries that were scored from his bat in that span came from edges. The first ran through the cordon and the second through square on the off-side, and in both cases Anderson seemed a little amused.
Pant only opened up when Joe Root introduced his off-spin into the attack in the 49th over, with the batsman on 12 and his partner Sharma on a patient 48. Pant reverse-pulled the first ball he faced off Root and even ran down the wicket and clobbered him for a straight six. But Sharma got out a run later, leaving India on 121/5, and Pant promptly tucked his head back into his shell—now biding his time with R Ashwin first and then with Washington Sundar.
During a 49-ball partnership with Ashwin, the off-spinner hit more boundaries than Pant. Once Ashwin departed just before tea, with India’s score looking rather ominous of a collapse at 146/6, even Root and Dom Bess bowling in tandem couldn’t tempt Pant to do something drastic. With his old buddy Sundar—they have played together since the age-group days—Pant took India to the final break of the day without any more damage, just about having survived a sure-shot LBW appeal himself.
His first fifty runs took 82 balls—one of his slower ones not just in Test cricket, but in his first-class career. That half-century came up in the 70th over and by the end of the 77th over, Pant had only added five more runs. This is when he decided to open his shoulders. Not just because he sensed that Stokes, bowling his 19th over of the day, was tiring. But also because he and Sundar had dragged their team within nine runs of taking a first innings lead.
The first ball of the 78th over by Stokes was bashed over the cordon for four. And the next, which was pulled with such ferocity into the midwicket fence that Stokes had his hands on his head, levelled the scores. From here on Pant was the Pant of Sydney and Brisbane from earlier this year—heroic smashes to the ropes and simultaneously making the impossible look easy. After some breathtaking hits against the second new ball, he slogged Root over cow corner in the 84th over to bring up his third Test hundred.
A delightful smile spread across his face as he showed his bat to all parts of the largest cricket stadium in the world. That smile disappeared three balls later when Root and Anderson—men who had borne most of Pant’s brunt—combined to dismiss the centurion. Still, when most needed, Pant had played his role in turning around this match, just as he had a few months ago in Australia when he turned around an entire series.