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What Has Happened to Rishabh Pant?

Ben Jones looks at the progress of India’s star young batsman.

The spinner walks in, approaching the crease. They send the ball down a touch straighter than intended, pitching just in line with the left-hander’s off stump. The batsman drops to one knee, picks his bat up higher, with an almost ungainly lack of precision. The bat comes down with force, the batsman stockier and more muscular than most young players, and the resulting power swings him off his feet. He flops to the offside, off balance, and watches the ball fly away to the legside. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last. Unorthodox, unpredictable, unbelievable. Rishabh Pant is superb.

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India have dropped Rishabh Pant from the T20I squad for their series against Australia. A mediocre IPL 2020 season, and an underwhelming T20I career to date, has failed to secure Pant a longer stint in the national side. There have been recent questions raised about his fitness – though such concerns are seemingly not enough to take him out of the Test arena – as well as long-standing questions about his method, and whether he has the temperament to play T20 cricket with the responsibility and control some deem necessary for success.

It feels harsh to place too much emphasis on Pant’s form in post-lockdown cricket. Eight matches off the back of no cricket, interrupted by injury, is hardly the best opportunity for a player to show their best work. When you consider that Pant is coming off the back of two of the best IPL seasons you could possibly imagine – in 2018 and 2019, Pant scored 1172 runs at 10.1rpo, a staggering body of work – then the decision becomes even harsher. Two years of brilliance, seemingly undone by a brief stint of just being fine. For a young man’s achievements at the very pinnacle of T20 to be glossed over so quickly, is frustrating.

But let us not get distracted here, because Pant’s excellence over the last few years is deserving of more attention. In the last three seasons the only man to average more than Pant, and scores quicker, is AB de Villiers. If you’re rubbing shoulders with one of the greats of the game, you’re doing something right. If you let yourself look through the off-balance hitting, the big swings, and just look at what Pant has produced, then you’re looking at a remarkable player. In the last three IPL seasons, Rishabh Pant is one of the most valuable performers, his average Batting Impact of +6.9 among the highest of any player in the competition. Whether you’re using old stats, or new ones, Pant is up there with the absolute elite.

Pant’s record against spin – his trademark slog sweeps, off balance, in particular – is the most widely discussed aspect of his game, but he’s so much more than a spin hitting specialist. What takes Pant to the next level is that he is actually as good against pace as he is against spin, one of the few players who can dominate both kinds of bowling consistently.. In the last three years of IPL cricket his effectiveness against pace and spin is almost identical; scoring at 9.9rpo against pace (averaging 35), scoring at 8.8rpo against spin (averaging 39), is the record of a world class player.

What seems to distract from that excellence, from Pant’s ability in the eyes of the decision makers, is that he is visibly unorthodox. At CricViz, we have three measures we use to ‘profile’ a T20 batsman: an Attack Rating, a Timing Rating, and a Power Rating; Pant’s batting profile shows him to be an exceptional player in all three areas, but what is more interesting is how different his profile is to the average batsman. Indeed no batsman’s profile is further from the ‘average’ player than Pant – he is the most unusual T20 batsman in the world, by virtue of excelling in every department.

And excel he does. Beyond all that criticism for being too reckless, the lecturing and the condemnation about how he should go about things, Pant continued his brilliance. His lack of regard for his own wicket was not a ceiling on his talent, but the quality which underpinned it. He kept on hitting, he never wasted deliveries, he never changed.

Until this year.

This season, Ricky Ponting and Shreyas Iyer have used Pant higher up the order, naturally pushing him into more of an ‘anchor’ role. One can understand that in some ways, a natural move towards trying to ‘get more’ out of their star talent. However, it hasn’t particularly suited him. An average of 36 and a scoring rate of 7.03rpo is not disastrous, but it’s a fairly underwhelming return, and for Delhi – who have plenty of solid, more traditional top order options – it’s almost certainly not what they were after.

Pant has still had value in this role, his Batting Impact (+1.9) indicative of a man capable of contributing in this tweaked position, but it’s not the sort of contribution we have grown used to. Pant’s attacking shot percentage this season, 56%, is the lowest he’s ever recorded in an IPL; his Attack Rating is 170, the lowest he’s managed since his debut season. Pant’s scoring rate this year is the slowest he’s ever scored in IPL cricket, and his boundary percentage of 14.6% is the lowest he’s ever recorded. A player who has been defined by aggression has looked cowed, by caution.

This season has seen Pant bat more like everyone else, and it’s hardly surprising. For the entirety of his short career, Pant has been told to do things differently. As he’s smashing records, and reaching levels few else in the world can match, he is judged for his method. Too reckless. A slogger. Brainless. Prominent ex-players will talk about how “Shubman Gill is my favourite”, “Sanju Samson is my favourite”, “Prithvi Shaw is my favourite”. You’d be looking a long time to find the equivalent statement about Pant. In Indian colours, Ravi Shastri has criticised Pant for not playing “sensible cricket”; this season, Sanjay Manjrekar has criticised Pant for not showing enough intent. He cannot win.

That will take a toll. When the greats of the game, of Indian cricket, are cooing over the classical orthodoxy of players with worse records than Pant, and criticising him, it’s only natural for him to try and change. When “responsible” innings – slower, longer knocks – are praised disproportionately, then players will be inclined to follow that route. KL Rahul – another man who has slowed down, become more conservative, and with it less valuable – described strike rate as “very, very overrated” in a recent interview. Perhaps this is politicking, a point made to show the Indian hierarchy that he understands how they want to play the game, but regardless – he is wrong. Strike rate is not overrated; it is the single most important statistic in T20 cricket.

So, that T20I record. It isn’t good, there’s no argument. When people say “he has had chances at international level”, they are right. But it’s a peculiar way of looking at selection. Pant has been phenomenal in IPL cricket for years, a harder form of cricket than T20I. While the latter does vary more in terms of conditions – purely by being played around the world – the pure standard of IPL cricket is so high that dominating it is not to be taken lightly. The BCCI’s decision to not let players take part in other T20 leagues means that when they do play overseas – in T20Is – then they are almost always doing so for the first time, in a very volatile format. Add to that the fact that Pant is playing in the most volatile role in the game (late innings hitter), and you’re then judging a player on the miniscule sample of cricket which ranges wildly in quality, rather than the huge sample of high quality excellence they have in IPL. Large IPL records mean more than small T20I records; strike rates are more important than averages.

It takes people doing things differently, to take the criticism that comes with that and stay true to their approach, for cricket to change – and India should know that better than almost anyone. Before this season, there were only two players in the history of the IPL to score at 9rpo or more, against each of the main bowling types (min 50 balls): Virender Sehwag, and Rishabh Pant. 

Good company, and that tends to be Pant’s way, but it’s an extremely apt comparison. Because India have another Virender Sehwag on their hands, the actual equivalent, in modern day cricket. There are plenty of assertive young Indian Test batsmen, who owe a debt to Sehwag, and perhaps even an aesthetic resemblance. Yet they don’t mean the same, because the context is different. The world has changed. Saying Prithvi Shaw or Shubman Gill are the next Sehwag is like saying Oasis were the next Beatles, in 1992 – singing the same songs, in a different era, is not the same. A batsman who plays with a level of aggression and intent that is deemed unsuitable and unsustainable – we know a man who fits this template. Sid Monga wrote this magnificent piece on Pant, a few weeks ago. His contention, that Pant is the first Indian batsman with a genuine T20 attitude, feels true. It would be fair to say that Pant is ahead of his time, were he not still dominating in the current era.

Revolutionaries rarely look familiar. The future doesn’t always feel comfortable. Radical change is not incremental. But if you’re looking for a modern equivalent – an ultra aggressive Indian batsman, surrounded by orthodox talents – then you’re looking for Pant. The young Indians coming through now, the U-19 kids, are a fantastic bunch who are making a real name for themselves at this tournament. But they are treated delicately, their mistakes understood and softened by those who look on. Yet Pant is, in many cases, barely two years older than them. Pant has scored more T20 runs before the age of 23 than anyone in history barring Quinton de Kock. For much of his career, he has not been afforded the gentle treatment. Perhaps that is the curse of outrageous talent; perhaps, the misfortune of not coming through with a large group; perhaps evidence of the impatience afforded to those who deviate from the orthodox. 

There is responsibility on the man himself, without question. India claiming that Pant’s fitness is paramount, at the same time as Chris Gayle thrashed the ball around Sharjah on Monday night, is a rather ironic bit of timing, but Pant has given the Indian selectors an excuse to drop him – and they have taken it. He cannot give them those excuses. 

But let’s be blunt – wickets are overrated in T20 cricket. Batsmen are too cautious. In 15 years time, it would be staggering if teams played with the same caution and traditional attention to preserving wickets. In Rishabh Pant, India have a player ready to change the game, to define the era. He may struggle for the rest of this season, but hopefully he’ll return in the spring as the batsman we have seen in the past few seasons. Short, aggressive innings, which yield tall totals in short periods of time, are the future of T20.

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John Landau was a failing music reviewer in America, in 1974, ready to quit the business. Before he left the job he held at Rolling Stone he had to publish one more review; he headed over to a gig by a young New Jersey musician, in Cambridge/Massachusetts’ at the Harvard Square Theatre. The date was May 9th, and in the days that followed he wrote:

“Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square theater, I saw rock’n’roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

Forgive us the easy line – I’ve seen the future of T20 cricket, and its name is Rishabh Pant.

Please don’t ruin him.

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Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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