Rishabh Pant: The spark that triggered India's Sydney resistance
Before the Indians hosed down a smoldering bowling attack into harmless embers in the final session, there was a fire of their own, lit by the irrepressible Rishabh Pant. While it burned, for a large part of the Day 5 morning and for a bit of the afternoon too, Pant even gave the Indian dressing room fleeting hopes of victory in a match that they looked certain to lose before he walked out to bat at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
That’s how remarkable the young wicketkeeper’s essay of 97—in the fourth innings of the Test, no less—was in front of the stumps; the kind of innings that makes everyone forget his errors behind it. Perhaps Pant’s innings (three runs short of what would’ve been his second hundred in Sydney and also his second fourth-innings hundred in three years, while no one else in this playing eleven has even one) will finally force India to field him as a specialist batsman.
Playing Pant alongside wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha is bound to happen in the final Test at Brisbane anyway, given the spate of injuries in the Indian camp. But his effort on Monday could well change his long-term fortunes as well, as heavy voices—from Shane Warne’s to Sunil Gavaskar’s—weighed in with the hope that Pant will be unburdened of his thick keeping mittens, but not his lighter, batting ones.
“I do believe he will be a specialist middle-order batsman at No.5,” Gavaskar told the broadcast studio. “That position will suit him well because he will attack and has got that X-factor, a swagger, about him.”
Pant's first five runs were scored over 34 balls. Perhaps he was struggling with a bad elbow (a blow he copped in the first innings) or perhaps he was just cautious. Either way, it was akin to a hard rocking band (say AC/DC, they’re Aussie after all) beginning a concert with a Carnatic recital. He would soon get back to the power chords.
Promoted above Hanuma Vihari to No.5, his highest batting position to date, Pant walked in to bat in the second over of the day, at the fall of captain Ajinkya Rahane’s wicket to Nathan Lyon. The 23-year-old dead batted the first two balls he faced off Lyon and remained largely watchful for the next hour or so. This lulled the off-spinner into a false sense of security, before Pant went on an attack for the ages—an assault that Lyon will smart from long after this series is finished, especially because the bowler could’ve twice snuffed his innings out.
While on 3 and then on 56, Lyon was let down by his captain Tim Paine’s dropped catches. On both occasions, Pant had prodded at the ball with leaden feet. Then, off the 35th ball, Pant woke up. He rocked back in his crease and whipped the ball against the turn for two runs. Two balls on, he found the ropes; a skip down the wicket and a smash over the mid-on fielder’s head for four. Lyon tossed the next ball up again. Pant thumped it over the fence for six.
His boundaries always came in succession. That was the 48th over of Australia’s innings and in the 50th, Pant struck Lyon for two more fours—a hammer hit through the covers and another waltzing scoop over his head. But even that seemed innocuous in comparison to the treatment meted out to the finest finger-spinner in the world a few overs later.
By just the 57th over, Lyon’s 19th, both mid-off and mid-on were pressed back to the boundary. Yet, Pant fearlessly took on each of them with consecutive sixes off the first two balls. The next ball, short and fast, was cut through square to bring up his fifty; 45 of those runs from just 30 deliveries. The applauding dressing room looked just as awestruck as the spectators.
“That’s the sort of player he is. Rishabh is electric and he excites you. But you don’t want to be in either dressing room watching him bat,” R Ashwin, the other hero of the hour, would say later. “Because if you are in the opposition dressing room you are thinking you want his wicket. But we are also sitting here thinking he shouldn’t play rash shots. He puts you on tenterhooks all the time but that knock set us up.”
In the time Pant moved from 5 to 50, his batting partner, Pujara, eased ahead from 22 to 27. In life and batting styles, there cannot be two more dissimilar men than Pant and Pujara. If Pant’s rhythm is firmly set in the digital age, Pujara ticks along with the steadiness of the sun dial. But on Monday, it was Pujara’s strike-rate that was influenced by Pant and not the other way around.
Just before lunch, at a time Pujara is prone to shut shop, he was aggressive in his own ways—running hard between the wickets and scoring twin boundaries off Lyon. Then, just after the break, Pujara climbed into an upper cut off Mitchell Starc. The ball flew over the slip cordon for four and Pant smiled from the non-striker’s end. “Their left hand-right hand combination was very crucial for us,” Rahane later said at the press conference.
Pant hurried into the 80s with consecutive fours off Cameron Green and, very next over, went deep into the 90s with consecutive fours off Lyon. But in a rush to get to his hundred an over before the new ball was due, he barged down to a widish ball from Lyon and only managed a slice down the point fielder’s throat.
Almost immediately, India’s focus shifted from winning the match to cutting their losses with a draw. But thanks largely to Pant’s spark that gave India hope amid dense gloom, the draw felt like a win anyway.
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