Spare a thought for young Rishabh Pant. His batting, complete with exquisite timing, fearless hitting and crisp strokeplay has been a joy to watch. He hammered an excellent maiden Test century at The Oval during India’s tour of England recently and nearly scored another impressive century in the Rajkot Test against West Indies.
These pulverising knocks (114 & 92) in the first four Tests of his career no doubt highlight his potential as a batsman. However, another near ‘express’ century of his is cause for real concern. In fact the speed at which he is hurtling towards this dubious century is embarrassing and does not augur well either for him or the team.
Pant is unwittingly zeroing in on the horrid record of a wicket-keeper conceding 100 byes in the least number of Tests. What this says of his skills behind the sticks is only too well known to warrant repetition.
The short and squat Delhi wicket-keeper started his Test career reasonably well, conceding just 6 byes on debut. But since then his performance as wicket-keeper has regressed to alarming proportions. He gave away 30 byes in his second Test and a whopping 40 in the third. The 21 byes conceded in the Rajkot Test meant that he has let 97 byes slip through his grasp in only four Tests –a horrendous average of nearly 25 byes per Test.
Even accepting that 20 per cent of 97 byes were owing to wayward bowling, Pant’s work behind the stumps still remains shoddy and unconvincing.
Standing up to spin bowlers on India’s pitches is without doubt an extremely tough task. It is not just the variable bounce that is a challenge; the ball could turn viciously, jump out of the rough or simply scoot through. Then there are deliveries that do nothing and these further complicates the issue.
The Indian team management quickly realised that Pant’s wicket-keeping technique and skills left a lot to be desired. He, however, was a cricketer of enormous potential and Indian cricket simply could not afford to lose him. They thus opted to salvage the situation by keeping him out of the Asia Cup in Dubai and instead sent him to the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru to iron out flaws in his glove work. Former wicket-keeper Kiran More was requested to help work on his technique.
The best part of Pant is that he looks such a natural batsman. His approach to batting and the ability to strike the ball cleanly is tremendous. Sadly his wicket-keeping ability is not on par. His early coaches had not worked on his technique as stringently as they ought to have.
The late cricket coach Keki Tarapore used to often say that wicket-keepers should collect the ball with two hands and in the same deferential manner as receiving a Rs 100 note (very big sum in his days). “Accept the ball, like you would deferentially accept a 100 Rupees note. Don’t grab it,” he would constantly call out.
Pant not only grabs the ball, his habit of throwing it up in the air after collecting it seems like even he is surprised that it had safely landed in his gloves. There are other flaws like wide stance, getting up early and not watching the ball into his gloves that need to be worked upon.
Importantly if he does not measure up quickly enough, the selectors would have to take a timely call on whether his services are needed solely as batsman or as a batsman who can keep wickets.
Unfortunately India does not have dozens of promising wicket-keepers waiting to step into his shoes. The cupboard is bare. Andhra’s KS Bharat and Jharkand’s Ishan Kishan are the front runners now that Wriddhiman Saha’s chances of returning to top level cricket in the near future appear bleak.
KL Rahul could be a short-term solution but even that only if the captain and selectors are desperate.
Even otherwise selectors and others in the decision-making loop need to take a call rather quickly so that there is some semblance of a settled first choice wicket-keeper when the team embarks for Australia.
The best way to approach this would be to rest Mahendra Singh Dhoni for the ODIs and T20Is against West Indies and try out Pant, Bharat and Kishan instead. Playing Dhoni against this weak West Indies team would be a pointless exercise. There would be nothing new to learn.
On the other hand, Pant’s progress in standing up to spinners could be monitored. Additionally, Bharat and Kishan’s skills could be put to the test in real match situations.
Who knows, Pant could still turn out fine with all the advice he’s getting from More and others. Meanwhile he can also take heart from the fact that Australia’s Rodney Marsh too was a below average wicket-keeper to start with, but consciously made the effort to fine-tune his skills. He not only improved by leaps and bounds but finally became one of the world’s finest glovemen.
Pant too could diligently make the leap towards excellence. But until he reaches there anxious sleepless nights are assured for India’s coach, skipper and bowlers.