'Outside the rope, there are no fielders': Rishabh Pant
Just for a moment, imagine that you are Rishabh Pant. Not the Pant of today – the great hero resting on great laurels after playing two of the greatest knocks in Indian Test cricket in quick succession. That’s too easy. Rather, slide into the shoes of the Pant of just a few days ago; the Pant of January 11th. Now look around: it is the fifth and final day of the Sydney Test and you are on your way to the ground, quite possibly thinking that this could well be the last bus ride towards an international for a long time.
Not only have you had a bad tour, Australia has simply bookended two long and lousy cricketing years. Since the 2019 World Cup semi-final loss in Manchester, the runs have dried up across formats and so have the chances. A poor show in the IPL of 2020, on the back of a difficult lockdown, has ensured that you have been dropped from the ODI and T20I legs of the Australia tour – bread-and-butter formats for an attacking batsman such as yourself.
You aren’t picked for the first Test in Adelaide; your wicketkeeping skills become a national debate after the second Test in Melbourne; the spills continue in Sydney, where you twice drop a debutant who then makes it count; and now India face an impossible target of 407 runs on the final day. You haven’t scored over 36 runs in an innings in the last two years in Test cricket and to make matters a little worse and a little more difficult, you are nursing a bruised elbow that makes it impossible to pick up a bat – let alone swing it.
Here's the full Rishabh Pant interview
You are 23 and your life is already at a crossroads, even as the team bus has pulled into its final destination. You are possibly thinking, “How on earth do I turn it around from here?”
“I have no idea,” says Pant, big grin pasted on his face and his palm idly tousling his hair, during an interaction on Zoom. “I really have no idea -- how I did that. But it happened. You know how it ended from there.”
He smiled. "We won the series," he said, sotto voce.
Pant doesn’t have to imagine any of this – he has been living in those shoes, within those gloves and inside that head for a very long time now. Yet, his guess at how the bad time led swiftly to his fourth innings effort in Sydney, which was followed closely by his fourth innings effort in Brisbane, is not too different from mine and yours. But his understanding of the processes that went behind the turnaround – that’s where the real Pant emerges.
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“Gaadi ka engine hota hai na. Start karo toh thoda agar 5-10 kilometre chalta hai, phir uske baad smooth ho jata hai (Imagine the unused engine of a car. You have to drive it for a few kilometres before it smoothens out),” says Pant, his swirling hands describing a well-oiled machine. “It’s the same for cricket too. When you keep playing matches regularly, your engine runs really well. It finds its rhythm and stays there.”
That rhythm arrived in front of the stumps despite Pant’s penchant of often blowing his goodwill behind it. But for a man who spills as many chances as Pant, he is never in a sombre mood while ‘keeping. It's just who he is. Take for example the Brisbane Test, when a terrific ball by Washington Sundar scooted past his gloves for byes.
“Aisa web pheko (That’s how you throw your web),” he told his good friend Sundar, caught by the stump mic. But the word ‘web’ reminded him of Spiderman, so Pant sang the desi version of the superhero’s catchy theme-song: “Spiderman, Spiderman, tu ne churaya mere dil ka chain”, even as Sundar prepared to bowl the next ball. That was that. Pant was in good spirits again.
“I try and not focus on the cricket when I am down,” says Pant. “You need to give yourself some space also. So, that’s what I do and I keep reminding myself that, ‘you are good, you can do well’. I just try and give belief to myself. That helps me to move on from the past.”
That, and a couple of cortisone injections around his right elbow before he walked out to bat on the final day at the SCG.
OUTSIDE THE ROPES, THERE ARE NO FIELDERS
There is one shot that just about sums up the irrepressibility of Pant, and why he takes aim at the impossible, over and over again until it is achieved. The ball is 70-overs-old on a final day track at the Gabba, and the great Nathan Lyon is bowling into the growing rough outside the left-hander’s off stump. The fifth ball of Lyon’s over spits up from a cloud of dust and spins square past Pant, literally, and is collected by first slip. Wicketkeeper Tim Paine and the close-in fielders woof with delight, and the crowd ‘ooooh’ for a very long time.
Pant is impressed too. But he has already made up his audacious mind to plant the next ball into the stands beyond midwicket. “I tend to read what the bowler might do in the following ball,” says Pant. “For a great bowler like him, if the ball is doing too much, especially against a lefty, I had a feeling he will try turning it from the line of the stumps. He won’t try and bowl the same ball on that spot again. So, I thought, ‘if he tries to give me some space or bowl within the stumps, I will step out’. When he bowled, I saw that the ball was within the line of the wickets. That’s why I jumped out and hit him.”
That daredevilry was witnessed at the very end of his match-winning 89* in Brisbane, a long way away from the very beginning of his match-saving 97 in Sydney, where Pant took his time to find his groove. For the first 33 balls, played in the company of Cheteshwar Pujara, Pant played quite like Pujara – scoring all of 5 runs. Was it the sore elbow or just him being watchful of a Day 5 track?
“I would say both. Before I took the injections it was difficult for me to even move my elbow around. Very difficult. When I was taking the injection also I was very scared, because I had no idea how this would work,” says Pant. “Even after the dose, when I tried a shot after some time had passed, the elbow was paining. But soon I got into the zone and I wasn’t thinking about the injection or the elbow after that.”
The zone – that beautiful place where Pant’s strokeplay makes the spectators believe in their bones that no target is too impractical. But did Pant himself believe that 407 runs – one run more than the all-time Indian record – could be chased down in Sydney? “Of course,” he says. “In the dressing room we always say that everything is possible in cricket. But before achieving something big, you, as an individual, need to believe it is possible. So while we all knew it was going to be really hard, at the back of my mind I also knew that nothing is impossible in cricket.”
It wasn’t, until Pant got out – chasing after Lyon an over before the second new ball was due – and India’s strategy understandably turned on its head in the final session of the match. While Pant regrets not being around to force an Indian win, he doesn’t regret the fashion in which he was dismissed.
“I thought the ball was there to hit. I still think so, even now,” he says. “Yes, I mistimed it and didn’t get a hundred. But I am going to try the same shot if that ball is bowled again at me. That’s how I play and that’s what I think.”
This thought process contributed heavily to the hallmark of his Sydney knock – Pant’s calculated assault of the best finger spinner in the world in Lyon. After a couple of boundaries shook away Pant’s shackles, Lyon pushed his mid-off and mid-on fielders back to the ropes. It should’ve made for a great game of cat and mouse, if the cat hadn’t swallowed the mouse in the first instant – what with Pant teasingly clearing the heads of the boundary fielders time and again.
What gave him the courage? The answer is the essence of Pant in a paragraph. “Every time you hit the ball in the air, you are taking your chances. So why not try for six runs? That’s what I think,” says Pant, a mischievous smirk spreading on his lips. “If you’re trying to hit a six, like me, I know that sixes only fall outside the ropes and outside the ropes there are no fielders. So if you have done everything right, there is no problem.”
I WILL ALWAYS HAVE THE GABBA
In both Sydney and Brisbane, Pant predominantly batted alongside Pujara in the second innings. Calling them polar opposites is to use a cliche; Pant and Pujara barely belong to the same solar system in their respective approaches to life and cricket. But there they were together, ball after ball for 261 balls at the SCG and ball after ball for 141 balls at the Gabba, akin to a freerunner and a living statue feeding off each other.
When Pant is asked what he and Pujara could possibly speak about between balls, he slaps his thigh and laughs. “We talk about the same stuff that everyone else talks about. The team plan, how to build a partnership – which is especially crucial in Test cricket – or how we shouldn’t lose our wicket when lunch or tea is near,” he says. “But our main conversation is that of appreciation for each other.”
Standing just those few yards away from Pujara, Pant watched in awe as his batting partner defied the Australians with both bat and body in Brisbane. “Puji bhai was standing there after getting hit some 10 times and still giving his 200 percent. That inspired me. That inspired all of us,” says Pant. “He was so determined to make his team win, that’s the team culture we want to build. Only then special things happen, when you keep the team first.”
Pujara departed with exactly a 100 runs adrift of India’s target of 328 runs, leaving Pant on 34, many a run and partner (Mayank Agarwal, Sundar, Shardul Thakur and Navdeep Saini) away from glory. But this time Pant didn’t just believe he could, he believed he would.
“From when I walked out to bat in Brisbane, it was already in my head that we had to win the match. I never gave a second thought for a draw,” says Pant. “I was trying to keep us, as a team, in the game for as long as possible. Puji bhai and I had short targets in mind – 15-20 runs here and there and play till the end of the session and things like that.” So, when was he allowed to truly cut loose? “Right at the end, when only 30-40 runs were left, they gave me permission to go for the target. But before that, I was doing whatever I could to keep us in the chase.”
Until that hour at the Gabba, when Pant was feeling down, he would distract himself from thinking about cricket by “watching an action movie or playing music, any music, or speaking to friends and family.”
“Because,” he says, “when you are down you tend to think and overthink the game.”
Now, however, to pick up himself up from a bad day of cricket, Pant will always have more cricket; Pant will always have the Gabba – at least everything between the moment his boundary hit secured India’s greatest overseas win in Test cricket to when he turned flag-bearer shortly after. “It will always stay with me,” he says. “Right now it is the biggest moment in my cricket life. I am also amazed. Because as a player you always dream of doing something like this – doing well yourself and helping your team win in a great occasion. Now it has happened.”
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