Time for Rishabh Pant to trust his defence more
- The India wicket-keeper was expected to bolster the batting at No. 6 but hasn't hit a fifty in five innings in the Test series against England
Rishabh Pant was to provide the final flourish in an Indian batting order comprising heavyweights—come in at No 6 with his swinging blade to batter the swinging Dukes ball. Behind him a long tail because Virat Kohli is clear in his head that to pick 20 wickets you needed five bowlers.
To India’s misfortune, their most experienced batters have been stuck in the mire. In the three Tests so far, Pant has walked in to bat at 4/112, 4/278, 4/155, 4/56 and 4/237. His highest score (37) came in the first innings at Lord’s when India was more comfortably placed with 278 runs on board. In the second innings of the last Test, India did have 237 runs in hand, but were too far behind in the game, battling a 354-run deficit.
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Except that one time at Lord's, each time Pant has walked out to bat India were in dire need of someone to resurrect an innings in shambles. It hasn't been him—only 87 runs to show so far at an average of 17.4--Pant's poor form has simply added more pressure on the middle order to rediscover their form.
Few have reached the dizzying heights Pant has in just 24 Tests, aged 23. He is not just the present, but also clearly the future, having shown a marked improvement with the gloves. Can India continue to bat him in the top six on the England tour though? For Pant to make an impact, he needs some elbow room. James Anderson and Co have not given him any.
To begin with, England don’t bowl spin to Pant anymore and they don’t play Jack Leach either. Their seamers have bowled relentlessly in the channel around off-stump (57 %) to him, with just 15 % wide outside off, as per CricViz. That bowling discipline has accounted for his wicket every time. Four out of five times, Pant has been dismissed behind the wickets. The fifth dismissal was a catch at short extra cover off a mistimed drive.
It is no surprise that Pant is the most attacking batsman on the team with nearly a third of his shots played to hit. Yet, the wickets too have come from those shots, though Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul have played more false shots than him, according to CricViz ball-tracking data.
To get amongst the runs in England, Pant may need to curb his attacking instincts and try and leave some deliveries alone; among India's batsmen, only Ajinkya Rahane has played at more deliveries outside off and with disastrous consequences. Despite being far stronger in defence and far more experienced, Rahane too is averaging just 19 on the tour.
Pant’s method in the World Test Championship final and so far in this series has been to adopt the Virat Kohli template of standing outside the crease. To disrupt the bowler’s rhythm, he has also tried to charge down while standing, on an average, nearly eight feet out of the crease. So much so that he’s been once pushed back by the umpire for coming too close to the protected area. But England’s bowlers have been one step ahead, dropping their lengths back when needed, forcing Pant to retreat.
Pant batted more defensively, at least at the start of his innings, with great results in Australia. Perhaps he doesn’t trust his defensive technique in English conditions. On the 2018 tour of England, Pant was stuck on nought off 29 deliveries at Southampton and ended up registering the longest duck for India. In the next Test at the Oval, he came out hitting to score his first Test hundred.
There is one difference between the Oval Test in 2018 and the one starting on Thursday. Back then, he was batting at No.7. Now, every failure in the top six stands to hurt India more.
Kohli has already suggested playing an extra batsman would be a defensive move and not the way he wants his team to play Test cricket. India will hope Pant will choose his moments better and trust his defence more.