Wicketkeepers have found it difficult to thrive amid the aura of MS Dhoni. From the start of this century until Dhoni debut in 2004, India had tried 10 different wicketkeepers with Rahul Dravid being the only one to have played more than 50 matches across formats as a designated wicketkeeper. But since December 2004, there has been only one man behind the stumps for India, without the team management never having dropped Dhoni. Although there were backups, they only found a spot when Dhoni was injured or opted to rest.
Now imagine how difficult it must have been for KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant, who had filled in the spot for Dhoni after he had taken a sabbatical post World Cup 2019. Knowing that Dhoni would have, without an iota of doubt, taken his spot in the T20 World Cup squad had things been normal, despite all their strength must have given them a hard time. Hence when Dean Jones tweeted, "After MS Dhoni retirement yesterday... I bet you KL Rahul and R Pant slept well last night!!" after Dhoni's international retirement last Saturday, he might not have been wrong.
While the pandemic has been tough for most sportspersons across the globe, it has been a blessing in disguise for Rahul and Pant. Owing to the disruption it has caused to the cricket calendar, it has in someways urged Dhoni to take the big call. Moreover, weeks ahead, ICC had postponed this year's World T20 to next year. Hence a big sigh of relief for the two.
After MS Dhoni retirement yesterday... I bet you KL Rahul and R Pant slept well last night!!— Dean Jones AM (@ProfDeano) August 16, 2020
But who heads this competition?
Rahul. A chance of a lifetime had come his way earlier this year during the home ODI series against Australia when wicketkeeper Pant, incurred a head injury, and Rahul grabbed it with both hands. Besides performing rather impressively with the gloves since then, Rahul has also solved India's long-standing middle-order muddle. Since 2018, Rahul has played eight ODI innings as a middle-order batsman, averaging 66 with a strike rate of 109.27 - the most by any Indian. And with Rahul earning the captain's trust as well, the management might look to "persist" with him till 2023 World Cup.
What adds to Rahul's strength is the flexibility he offers to the captain. In 12 innings he has opened for India in ODIs since 2018, Rahul averages 49, better Shikhar Dhawan. And averages 51.84 in 14 T20I innings as an opener with a strike rate of 151.12, better than both of India's mainstay options.
So where does it leave Pant?
Pant was India's sole wicketkeeping option in the early months of Dhoni's sabbatical. Such was the team management's trust that India had no backups for that role, until November last year when Sanju Samson was called up. Pant had failed to live up to the expectation in both his role, hence Samson was called upon as a reminder to his responsibilities.
"Don't forget that the constant comparisons with Dhoni would have weighed a lot on his young mind. It doesn't help in getting performances with that pressure," former Indian wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta had opined in a recent interview with PTI.
But those were all during the times before COVID-19. Six months hence and with no cricket for the Indian players during this time, everything starts from scratch. And with IPL approaching, Pant's form will be crucial in determining his future. Besides, the T20 form of cricket hs always suited the youngster, with his numbers placing him even ahead of Rahul or team skipper Virat Kohli and within the league of AB de Villiers and Andre Russell.
Since 2016, Pant has scored 2146 runs in T20 matches which combines his run tallies in international and IPL matches. Only four of his teammates have scored more than Pant during the same time period - Rohit, Kohli, Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan. However, what puts Pant ahead of his teammates is his is strike rate, boundary percentage and dot ball percentage. The youngster scores at a little above 9 runs per over and has an incredible boundary index of 99.15. No other Indian batsman stands even close to his numbers. And his dot-ball percentage of 35.51 is only bettered by Kohli, Dinesh Karthik and Manish Pandey. Pant, however, has a low rotation rate, which only stands ahead of Rohit's figure.
If you take a closer look at his IPL numbers over the last two years, Pant has been the highest run-getter as a middle-order batsman scoring 1172 runs at a phenomenal strike rate of 168.88 and with a boundary percentage of 24.35. His SR and boundary percentage are only bettered by Kolkata Knight Riders' Andre Russell (196.67 and 31.19) and Royal Challengers Bangalore batsman AB de Villiers (174.56 and 25.09).
What adds to Pant's strength has been his daunting numbers in the middle overs, arguably the toughest zone for batters to operate in T20 cricket. While his tally of 676 runs over the last two IPL seasons has been the highest between overs 7 and 15, his RPO (Runs Per Over) of 8.82 is fourth-best (among batters facing a minimum of 200 deliveries) after CSK's Shane Watson (11.07), De Villiers (8.85) and former SRH captain Kane Williamson (9.23). Moreover, his middle-over numbers in T20 cricket since 2018 has been the best among Indian batters.
Pant's T20I numbers certainly reflect that if not as a keeper-batsman, India should opt for the youngster for his batting to bolster their lower middle order.
But with an average of 26.71 in 14 ODI innings since 2018 comprising of just one half-century, Pant is far from reckoning in the 50-over format. All he needs is a bit of backing from the team management and with the ODI World Cup still three years away, Pant has enough time to rediscover himself in the format.