Until a few months ago, young wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant was a first choice for the position across the three formats. It began with the Tests – when the arrival of Wriddhiman Saha from a significant injury lay-off collided with Pant’s inconsistent form. Earlier this year, a concussion injury sidelined the youngster in ODIs – making way for KL Rahul to be tried in his position.
Rahul shined, and Pant was shunned out from the limited-overs format, too. He may continue to be a part of the squad, but the 21-year-old is yet to appear for the side in the ongoing New Zealand tour.
He played for the first time on the tour during a three-day warm-up match preceding the Test series against the Kiwis last week. While he disappointed in the first innings, he came back strongly in the second – scoring 70 off 65 deliveries in an innings which was quite typical of him. He significantly relied on his bottom-hand, playing with a straight bat and opting to take the aerial route on most occasions.
The innings signified that he may have been out due to his inconsistent form and unnecessarily aggressive strokes which hardly complement the match-situation – but that hasn’t largely impacted his gameplay. During the innings, he slammed Ish Sodhi for two towering sixes over long-off, and the spinner himself lauded the batsman after the game.
“Rishabh is one of the most destructive hitters of spin. I would ask him what are the lengths that are hardest to hit. I have never seen someone with that kind of reach when he is attacking the spinners,” Sodhi said in an interview.
With the first Test starting on February 21, is there a chance Rishabh Pant finally makes a comeback in the side?
Wriddhiman Saha has been top-notch for the Indian team during the home season. Indian captain Virat Kohli called him the ‘best wicketkeeper in the world’ ahead of the series against South Africa last year, and Saha did justice to the huge tag with his performances.
“His keeping credentials are for everyone to see. He has done well with the bat whenever he has got a chance. According to me he is the best keeper in the world,” Kohli had said.
In overseas conditions, however, wicketkeeping skills may not be only required prerequisite for a place in the playing XI. While the Indian batting order performed brilliantly at home conditions - requiring Saha to come only as a filler in certain innings throughout the home season, the situation becomes considerably different away.
The stress on batting depth increases significantly, which may favour Rishabh Pant. The Indian youngster has performed impressively in the overseas tours to England and Australia, and the numbers favor him over the West Bengal veteran.
In 14 matches outside India, Saha averages 29.47, which isn’t far off from his career-average of 30.19. Nine out of his 14 matches, however, are in Sri Lanka and West Indies, where Saha averages 38 and 51 respectively.
In Australia, the West Bengal wicketkeeper-batsman averages 18.50, while in the only Test played in South Africa, he averages 4.
Pant, meanwhile, has scored Test centuries in Australia and England, in addition to a brilliant average of 58.33 Down Under. The youngster has played nine out of his 11 matches in his Test career overseas, and boasts of an average of 38 in away Tests.
Putting the pressure
Pant's style of play naturally helps the side put pressure on the opposition. New Zealand have named one spinner in Ajaz Patel for the first Test in Wellington, and Rishabh Pant could be an important factor in dealing with the left-armer. He is one of the only two left-handed batsmen (the other being Ravindra Jadeja) in the side, which puts more emphasis on his inclusion in the side.
It is Pant’s batting in the second innings of the warm-up match which may leave a few heads scratching in the team management. The fact that the think-tank decided to send-in both, Saha and Pant suggests that the side may opt to alter with the team combination for the first Test. Alternatively, it is also possible that Pant is merely being given match-practice to prepare him as a back-up.