India vs. South Africa: Chastened Rishabh Pant sings the song of redemption with innings of underlying brilliance
In the last 12 months alone, Rishabh Pant has played four exceptional Test innings – far more than most specialist hitters have in a lifetime. Had it not been for the burly left-hander’s unforgettable exploits on Thursday, India’s final test and series against South Africa would have been dusted and over by now.
Last January, Pant stormed to a battered 91 with 118 balls in Sydney and briefly evoked visions of a surreal Indian victory, but eventually laid the foundation upon which Hanuma Vihari and R. Ashwin built their match-saving alliance. A week later, his unbeaten 89 propelled India to a fabulous three-wicket win in Brisbane, Australia’s gabba stronghold breached for the first time in 33 years after the visitors successfully tackled a record 328.
Seven weeks later, on a wearing, crumbling, spitting surface in Ahmedabad, Pant battered carelessly and, under great pressure, slammed England into such submission with India that what appeared to be a close battle unfolded into an embarrassing one-sided defeat. Pant and Washington Sundar were desperate to win to qualify for the Test World Cup final, falling 146-6 in response to England’s 205. Briefly, Pant and Washington Sundar faltered and stuttered when then-head coach Ravi Shastri reminded them that they were playing at a turn at home track and that they need to master England’s spinners. Rejuvenated by that tea-time pep talk, Pant cut loose, racing to 101 with just 118 deliveries and setting up an innings win.
However, Thursday at Newlands will remain special for so many reasons. Conditions weren’t what he’d encountered prior to this series – liberal lateral movement, squishy and steep jump, a top-flight four-prong speed attack with a bite between the teeth and an uncertain bunch of peers whose survivability skills, with the honorable exception of Virat Kohli ranged from barely present to absent.
Pant himself came into this match under a massive cloud, an offshoot of his third-ball mishap in the previous game at The Wanderers. Kagiso Rabada had just winked out the well-placed Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara to thwart India’s intentions of building a sizeable tally in the third innings when the wicketkeeper batsman forced a ball on the paceman after being hit on the grille of his helmet was and had scored an ugly edge hoick to the stumper. It was a terrible stroke, even in isolation; Given that the game was on a powder keg, it was an inexcusable extravagance.
Immediately after this stroke, Rahul Dravid publicly admitted that he would discuss shot selection with his young protégé. It was a feeling Kohli repeated a day before the test. Pant was not notified, but was told in no uncertain terms that the line between carefree and carefree, however thin, can no longer be crossed with reckless abandon.
Whatever way the head coach and Skipper Pant shared their thoughts, it seems to have worked wonders. Even in the first innings in Cape Town, Pant hit with caution, if not circumspection, trailing off to 27 before being consumed by the extra bounce beanstalk provided by Marco Jansen.
On Day 3 of the decider, Pant trumped all that and more. Single-handedly, he kept India on the hunt while the partners came and went at the speed of the falling autumn leaves. Bar Kohli, who engaged with him in a 95-year partnership, Pant had no support. But with a maturity well past his 24 years and a temper that would have made someone proud with twice as many as his 27 Test appearances, he rarely lost poise or composure while indisputably playing the most dominant shot by an Indian of late.
Enjoy this. Pant was eliminated in the third over of the day after India lost Pujara in the first and Rahane in the next, adding just one run to the overnight 57. Walking away undefeated when India folded for 198, Pant alone had accounted for 100 of those 140 runs he scored when he was in the middle. India’s second-highest scorer was Kohli at 29; of the rest, only KL Rahul (10) managed to reach double digits.
If that’s not ultimate dominance, then what about it? Pant’s fourth Test century came in at just 133 shipments, and that’s only because he slowed after the mid-’80s with just Ten and Jack company, refusing easy singles to farm the strike. At a stretch where most batsmen, with the exception of the impressive Keegan Petersen, struggled to get the bat to the ball, Pant hardly made a mistake. He was in control of himself and bowling, clear in his head, unhurried in his approach, uninhibited in his shots.
In a signature throwback to Sydney and Brisbane, Pant displayed his situational awareness. There was no attempt to make shots, no overwhelming desire to dominate bowling, no odd clattering across the field to smash your way out of trouble. This was Pant at his calmest, most Zen-like form. South Africa may have realized the futility of getting under their skin – although it had done so with instant success in Johannesburg – because even the pesky Rassie van der Dussen, short-legged under the lid, rarely says a word about the edge lost.
For all his composure, Pant was anything but exciting. His attack on left spinner Keshav Maharaj on either side of lunch was stunning, his run between the wickets purposeful, his defense secure, his movements crucial. One could see how this masterpiece developed brick by brick; the only thing standing between him and a third century was the unseemly haste with which his peers deserted him.
Pant has hit triple figures in England, Australia and South Africa, a feat that has eluded many top batsmen and all Indian wicketkeepers. He took the No. 6 position as if he had been born on the estate. Perhaps we should forgive him the occasional offense, with the caveat that it can only be occasional. at best.
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