There is an advertisement featuring India keeper-bat Rishabh Pant that shows him speaking about his reverence for former India skipper MS Dhoni and how he used to cut out his pictures from newspapers and magazines and store them without knowing that one day, he and Dhoni would appear in the same photograph.
It’s quite a symbolic ad. Every aspiring young Indian keeper-batsman in the last decade wanted to be MS Dhoni. Pant was no different.
It proved to be quite a heavy cross to carry though. Pant felt it on his home ground at the Ferozeshah Kotla in New Delhi in an ODI vs Australia in 2019 where he fluffed chances and messed up on DRS calls and heard the crowd chant “Dhoni, Dhoni”.
It was a rude message about what the fans thought of his skills, especially with the gloves.
Cut to Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bangalore, three years later. Pant is crowned man of the series for his impactful knocks in the Tests vs Sri Lanka, but more importantly for his safe glovework on crumbling pitches to Ashwin, Axar Patel and Ravindra Jadeja. Between Kotla 2019 and Chinnaswamy 2022, we have witnessed effervescence and eccentricity with the bat too resulting in freak shows at Sydney, Gabba, Motera and Cape Town.
What has changed?
“He does not have fear of failure now. That has allowed him to be relaxed behind the stumps. You excel behind the stumps only when you have a relaxed mind which enables you to have a relaxed posture. Then you move freely, and your footwork and head positioning improve. One sees that happening with Rishabh today,” says former India wicket-keeper batsman Saba Karim, also a former selector, former BCCI game development manager and current talent search head of the Delhi Capitals, a franchise that Pant captains in the IPL.
Former India keeper and under-19 coach, Chandrakant Pandit, currently coaching Madhya Pradesh, says, “As a young keeper, because of enthusiasm and excitement, you tend to make mistakes. But as you play more, you improve as you end up collecting every alternate ball in Tests.”
Pandit had a close view of Pant as a youngster in the 2018 Ranji Trophy final in Indore where Pant led Delhi against Vidarbha, a team coached by Pandit. “He used to grab at deliveries and didn’t move well both sides along the line of the ball. Probably, he used to focus more on his batting those days. Now, he lets the ball to come to him. As a keeper, you must receive the ball which he is doing today and his anticipation is excellent now,” he analyses.
Pant was exceptional with the gloves even last year when England visited India for a four-match Test series, and it is something that skipper Rohit Sharma alluded to in the press conference after India beat Sri Lanka in Bengaluru. “His keeping was the best that I have seen. He also kept well when England came last year and he seems to get better every time he keeps wickets for India,” Rohit said.
Pant’s stumping of Kusal Mendis where he was blinded by the batsman as R Ashwin bowled a drifter from round the stumps and he had to stay low and whip the bails off, was proof of that improvement. Pant was also efficient in England last year where the swinging Dukes ball (often moving after it has passed the batsman) tested him thoroughly, especially when deliveries swung down the leg side.
Keeping a stable base has helped Pant and it is almost eerie how still he is when the bowler delivers the ball. Karim puts it down to romancing the odour of sweat. “He works very hard in simulating the kind of deliveries he expects in a match.”
Karim is right. If you followed the action on Day Three in Bengaluru and heard him behind the stumps, you would have picked up Pant on the microphone goading Axar Patel in rhythmic intonations, “Subah jo practice kiya tha, woh thoda sa karenge abhi“.
Pant’s technical improvements too are being hailed. “Now that his posture has improved, getting up with the ball has become easier for him. It’s not easy to do though. For that to happen, you need to get up with your hip, which he is doing consistently.”
While skill is Pant’s ally, confidence has been a faithful muse ever since he made his debut, which explains why his first scoring shot in Tests was a six.
“He has a presence with the bat now and that has helped his keeping to grow. He realizes that he must add value, to the team not only as a batter, but also as a keeper and that is the biggest advantage of an allrounder. One skill helps the other to improve,” explains Karim.
Pandit credits the selectors and captains for giving him chances despite early failures. “He was always a gifted, confident and fearless batsman. The people who backed him and gave him chances had a clear vision and must be congratulated. Special talent needs backing,” he says.
Recklessness with the bat and rotundity in his gait are two things that are being chipped away constantly and the improved fitness is beginning to show results.
With the responsibility of batting at No.5 in Tests, No.4 in ODIs and playing all formats as a keeper-bat will get very demanding unless he does the extra crunches and improves the readings on beep tests and skin fold numbers. “Fitness, nutrition, discipline. There are intangible sacrifices that one must make. Rishabh is doing that,” asserts Karim.
May be those fans at the Kotla who chanted Dhoni, Dhoni, three years ago, did Pant a favour as he knew he was far from a finished product, which he almost is today.