Rishabh Pant is the only Indian wicketkeeper to score Test centuries in Australia and England. He was the second-highest run scorer in the IPL in 2018. He's young, he's dynamic, and his style of play is refreshingly liberating. His early exploits in Test match cricket ensured that he would get a long run in the India side, and his style of play almost guaranteed a place in limited-overs cricket as and when the opportunity arose. It felt like the world was at his feet.
But though the new blue-eyed boy of Indian cricket seemed to quickly get everything he might have desired, it didn't last long. Pant is no longer in India's white-ball squads, and he is second in line after Wriddhiman Saha in the Test team. His successes in ODI cricket for India were sporadic, and the modes of his dismissals converted some of his fans into critics. Who goes for a glory shot when you need less than a run a ball to take the team home? Or how do you justify a high-risk shot first ball when the team has just lost a wicket?
Pant's Test and IPL returns suggested he had cracked the longest and shortest formats but simply didn't understand the rhythm of the 50-over game. Is that possible?
We've seen it in the past. Virender Sehwag bossed Tests but was below average in ODIs. We make attempts at understanding the anomaly to make sense of it, but we are far from deciphering it completely. However, we must keep trying, and here I too will make an attempt.
Pant burst onto the international scene after his exploits in the IPL. There were no expectations of him to play a certain kind of cricket and he played in the fashion he knew best. That's how a lot of young cricketers start their careers: see the ball and react. He did just that in Test cricket. It didn't always work but that can be said about any method one might employ. Nothing is foolproof, but the success of a method is in the percentages. And when your preferred method stops yielding an acceptable success rate, you ought to reinvent. Is it the case that Pant does not know his methods of play completely?
Scoring runs and knowing how to score runs aren't the same thing. Lots of players score a lot of runs to merit selection but few know the art of scoring runs. Confused? Let me elaborate.
The ability to react to a ball that's coming your way is built over years, decades even. The more you play, the more you learn about eliminating errors, and that, in turn, enables you to score runs. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you have understood your game inside-out. While you know that you react differently to different situations, you don't really fully know how and why you react to a particular situation in a certain manner, and what your best response should be - if it isn't the one you're presenting. You know you have played a bad shot and got out, but you don't remember what mindset you were in, because of which you played that bad shot. Unless you know the state of mind and the thoughts that led to that false shot, you won't see the red flags in time the next time and will repeat the mistake.
Awareness about your own play and what makes you behave differently in different situations isn't acquired overnight. I scored over 5000 first-class runs before I made my India debut, and to be honest, I didn't understand my game even after I was dropped from the side in 2004. That understanding developed only in the summer of 2007, while playing league cricket in England.
Going back to Pant - he comes across as someone who is confused about his role and his responsibilities towards his own game. I'm not talking about what the team or the situation demands of him but just his comfort with his own style of play. His last couple of Test matches and this edition of the IPL have brought that uncertainty to the fore. He is blessed with the ability to hit the ball long and hard, but it seems that he is unsure of the right time to do so.
Tom Moody: Rishabh Pant not in the best shape when he arrived for this season
Tom Moody thinks Rishabh Pant should regain his focus after a long period of lockdown break
There have been instances in this IPL where left-arm spinners have come and gone unscathed. The bowlers he wouldn't allow to settle down in the past have kept him quiet this season because he chose to let the moment pass and wait for a better, more opportune moment. Pant was Pant because he could change the tide, but now he's trying to swim with it and by the time he thinks about changing it, it's a little too late.
There's a theory doing the rounds that since he is batting slightly lower down the order, he has been asked by his franchise to play a different role. While data suggests that he has been at his best when he has had more overs to bat through in T20 cricket, and so that there is merit in the argument that this new role isn't doing him any favours, the fact is that batting lower down the order should give him the license to go berserk quicker. That is when he is at his best, right?
Wrong. Once you've tasted some success at the top and have been dropped thereafter, your overriding thought is about making it back into the side. Now your best game is no longer the game that got you the India cap in the first place but the one that you think is likely to help you regain it.
It's time for Pant to clear the cobwebs and spend more time with his own game, understanding its nuances. He is the same player who everyone thought had the X-Factor, he is the same player who was seen as a natural successor to Dhoni, and he is the same player who produced consistent performances at high strike rates in T20 cricket. He is the same player because you don't lose these skills overnight.
Temperament is the combination of knowing the demands of the situation and the best response based on your own strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are born with exceptional hand-eye coordination and the ability to pick the length and line a fraction earlier, but temperament has to be acquired.
Pant has entered the second stage of his career. This phase is about understanding and acquiring. The sooner he does that, the better for him and for Indian cricket.