Rishabh Pant Takes Us Inside His Rise, Fall & Remarkable Comeback
The image of Rishabh Pant falling away towards the leg-side, after having reverse swept the great James Anderson during the last Ahmedabad Test against England, will long remain etched as one of the most audacious moments in cricket from this era. On that day, Pant scored his first home Test century (he had already scored a century each in England and Australia), putting Team India on course to reach the inaugural World Test Championship final. This tweet from a fan: ‘Pant is either your favourite cricketer to watch right now or you are wrong’ embodies the southpaw’s heroic on-field resurgence since the turn of last year.
— simon hughes (@theanalyst) March 5, 2021
“Bhaiya, mujhe achha laga tha ki maine India ko match jita diya, bas,” Pant nonchalantly recalls the innings, on a Zoom call with me, and adds, “As an individual, I try to keep myself grounded, because that is now a thing of the past. I focus on living in the present.” At the time of our conversation, he had safely returned to his family in Delhi following the suspension of the 2021 Indian Premier League (IPL).
Very humbly, after stumps on that day too, Pant had attributed pulling off the avant-garde stroke, in part, to luck. Pant’s brand of cricket represents Gen Z’s general attitude towards success — against the traditional ideas of stability and personal accomplishment, this generation sometimes defines success in much easier ways, like maybe just coming home to your dog. All of 23, Pant’s thought process is equally uncomplicated.
Pant moved out of his hometown of Roorkee, Uttarakhand, to pursue a career in cricket, in his early teens. After harsh under-14 and under-16 stints in Rajasthan, Tarak Sinha — former director of the Rajasthan Cricket Association and the founder of Delhi’s famous Sonnet Cricket Club that has produced 100-plus first-class cricketers — took Pant directly under his wing.
“I decided to bring him to Delhi. We figured out which school he should study in, arranged a rented room for him in Palam, and provided every necessity, including a washing machine, casual clothes, and every little thing a little kid would want,” Sinha had told the Times of India, in 2016. As Pant graduated to higher grades of cricket, he shifted him to Chhattarpur to provide ‘a better environment which would make him feel good about himself’.
Learnt the basics of cricket under the watchful eyes of my coach Sh. Tarak Sinha. Thanks for being there SIR… pic.twitter.com/xzEe8KtHRk
— Rishabh Pant (@RishabhPant17) June 28, 2016
“My mother (Saroj) used to travel to Delhi with me, from Roorkee,” Pant says, and adds, “I used to take a bus at two or three in the morning, but she was always there.” He also reminisces fondly about his father (Rajendra), who passed away due to a cardiac arrest in 2017. “My father used to run a school back home. So, the neighbours always questioned him that despite you being in this trade, why is your son not focusing solely on academics? But, he still encouraged me to play.”
All the blood, sweat, and tears paid off when Pant was selected for Delhi’s under-19 and under-23 teams, very early in his career. Aged 19, he first made the cricket world take notice of him at the 2016 Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh. As a part of the Rahul Dravid-coached runner-up team at the tournament, he smashed the fastest-ever ODI 50 at this level, and collected the Player of the Match award on two separate occasions.
Meanwhile Rishabh Pant has hit a 300 at just about run-a-ball…….
— Harsha Bhogle (@bhogleharsha) October 16, 2016
His stock picked up further after a breakthrough Ranji Trophy season for Delhi. He ended up amassing four centuries in 2016/17 — including a triple hundred against Maharashtra and a 48-ball ton against Jharkhand. The Jharkhand game especially comes to my mind, firstly because two young keepers on either side, himself and his under-19 captain Ishan Kishan, were being touted as Team India’s future prospects behind the stumps, in the post- MS Dhoni era (they scored almost 500 runs in that match, combined); secondly, because Pant had scored the fastest first-class ton by an Indian.
Four months later, he made his international debut in a bilateral T20 series against England. Delhi Capitals paid Rs 1.9 crore to sign him for the 2017 IPL; he made hay almost instantly with a 43-ball 97 against Gujarat Lions. Batting legend Sachin Tendulkar called it the ‘best ever IPL innings’, as fans started tuning in to watch Pant play.
In 2018, he smashed the fastest T20 hundred by an Indian, off just 32 balls, in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, and followed it with an IPL hundred. His impressive performances for Dravid’s India A meant a Test call-up in the absence of the injured Wriddhiman Saha. Thrown into the deep end, he soon became the first Indian wicketkeeper-batsman to score hundreds in both England and Australia.
Rishabh Pant brings up his hundred with a SIX 💥
— ICC (@ICC) March 5, 2021
He even found himself on a belated flight to the 2019 World Cup in England, following injuries to Shikhar Dhawan and Vijay Shankar. He batted patiently for 32 in India’s semi-final defeat against New Zealand, but his shot selection came under the scanner; he got out caught trying to take on left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner. The pressure of global attention had started to get under his skin.
The lean scoring run continued that year on the tour to the West Indies: the result was just one half-century in 21 appearances in all limited-overs international cricket in 2019. Even his glove-work was heavily scrutinised, for collecting balls in front of the wickets and missing stumpings. A section of stadium crowds even started chanting his predecessor MS Dhoni’s name every time he made a mistake. Eventually, he was dropped from both the limited-overs playing XIs for India’s 2019/20 tour to New Zealand.
“You dream since your childhood ki ‘India ke liye khelna hai, India ko match jitaana hai.’ But once you are here, you don’t know what’s next,” he says. Self-doubt about his ability crept in, and the 2019/20 season was a near washout. Many wondered if he had peaked too early. He had flattered to deceive.
Almost all of us have faced professional struggles in our early 20s. Few, though, get publicly humiliated like cricketers do. His exclusion from the first T20I in New Zealand prompted classic headlines and comments like ‘Career Over?’ from irresponsible media outlets and fans, without any regard for the young lad’s mental wellbeing.
Kohli: Hey Kane, how does it feel to be an IPL winner?
Kane: You tell me, how does it feel to be a World Cup winner?
Pant: First you both tell me, how does it feel to play cricket? pic.twitter.com/V1burDyKVA
— Silly Point (@FarziCricketer) February 2, 2020
“I was feeling very low in life. I was thinking ‘some time back, I was India’s only wicketkeeper across all three formats. I was dropped from T20Is and ODIs, and even Test matches. Kaafi difficult time tha mere liye,” Pant recalls. “Figuring out how you are going to proceed from this point is most important [for any youngster on the international arena].”
Soon after Team India’s return from the 2-0 Test defeat in New Zealand, the pandemic brought all international sport to a halt. Pant admits that it was tough for him to stay motivated during those months as well, especially with his confidence dented. “In the lockdown, there was no motivation. But you have to push yourself. Keep reminding yourself that you have to help India win matches. More important than any personal goals is just to help my team win, be it the Ranji Trophy, or be it the IPL.”
We’ve waited so long for this, words can’t describe what we are feeling right now! 💪
Grateful for all your support. Let’s do this 👊🏻🕴🏻
See you on Tuesday @DelhiCapitals #Fam pic.twitter.com/GlJPiFdNil
— Rishabh Pant (@RishabhPant17) November 9, 2020
The 2020 edition of the IPL, in September last year, spelled the return of cricket for Indian players after nearly seven months, albeit in the United Arab Emirates. By his lofty standards, Pant had a rather forgettable time in the Gulf. He did score 343 runs in Delhi’s run to the final last season, but they came at a below-par strike rate of 114, as compared to his IPL career strike rate of almost 150.
Team India’s batting coach Vikram Rathour had admonished Pant for the difference between being ‘carefree and careless’; even coach Ravi Shastri had warned him of ‘a rap on the knuckles’ if he repeatedly let the team down. Pant was subsequently axed from the touring T20I and ODI squads to Australia, for India’s first international series post the lockdown. Even in the Tests, Saha looked like the favoured wicketkeeper for the starting XI.
“At this level [of international cricket], you get a lot of exposure; you get to meet lots of people and experience a lot of things. In between all of this, you get lost as an individual,” Pant says, while talking about the biggest lessons that he learnt during his time away from the limelight. “You tend to focus on the others, you should instead focus on yourself. You need to remind yourself that you have earned the right to be here. You have performed in the past, and that’s what has brought you here.”
As a junior cricketer, he had experienced a relatively smooth progression to international cricket. Failure on the biggest stage now had presented itself as a shock; he spent time pondering on mistakes instead of “believing in the process.”
A little boy had a dream of batting on the other end of the pitch with you. That little boy’s dream came true 🤩 Learning from you and being close to you has been the highest privilege. India will always be proud of @msdhoni 🇮🇳 Enjoy the journey ahead Mahi bhai 🤗 Legend 🙌🏻 #7 pic.twitter.com/iGlrQEQJTG
— Rishabh Pant (@RishabhPant17) August 15, 2020
What changed then? “Earlier, I used to try to control everything. But then I received one of the best pieces of advice, from Mahi bhai (MS Dhoni). He told me to ‘focus only on the controllable’”. During this period, Sinha once again became a strong pillar of support. Pant had visited him during a quiet phase in 2019, and also stayed in touch with him through a rocky 2020. The relationship of trust between the duo helped Pant learn to “prioritise the process over the outcome”.
“I’ve learned that diet is a crucial part of your overall fitness.” Pant tells me that he has hired expert nutritionists to help formulate diets. He’s also got a personal trainer and follows a low-carb, high-protein diet for simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss. The wicketkeeper-batsman shed around 10 kilos in four months ahead of the tour to Australia.
He also concentrated on improving his agility, and reaction and sprint speeds as a wicketkeeper. He tells me that he doesn’t expect his skills to improve drastically overnight; he simply wanted to regain the lost confidence in his ability, which had ‘always been there’.
January 9, 2021
Australia v India, series level at 1-1
Day 5, third Test match, Sydney Cricket Ground, Sydney
The visitors needed more than 300 runs to stage an improbable fourth innings chase, with eight wickets in hand, and three full sessions to play against arguably the world’s most lethal bowling attack. Team India were already without captain Virat Kohli, who was on paternity leave. With the dismissal of stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane early in the first session, there were question marks over who was going to walk in to bat next.
Rishabh Pant had taken a blow to his elbow off Pat Cummins’ bowling while batting in the first innings (“It still stings sometimes,” he says). He had not taken the field for two days. Scans ruled out a fracture, but the bruising was severe. It would have required at least a week to heal, partially. Time wasn’t on Team India’s side though. Pant was given painkiller injections before he hit the nets that day. Despite heavy taping, the pain persisted. However, he decided to get back to the centre of action, since the team needed him.
— Sachin Tendulkar (@sachin_rt) January 11, 2021
He walked in at number five, and fought the pain barrier to manage five runs off his first 33 balls. He took further blows — once on the thumb and once on the helmet — from Cummins. “Just keep your mind clear,” Pant kept talking to himself, he tells me, as he stitched together a crucial partnership with the dogged Cheteshwar Pujara.
With the pacers out of fuel, he finally tore into the off-spinner Nathan Lyon. He danced down the track to loft Lyon for a four and a six off consecutive deliveries. The onslaught continued even with the field spread out, as he hit Lyon for two more sixes straight back. Purpose eclipsed pain and dropped catches helped. Even the much-fancied Australian fast bowlers got a taste of his controlled aggression once they came on.
If @RishabhPant17 can improve his wk skills by 10-15%, his influence on the contemporary game could well be similar to what Adam Gilchrist’s was in the preceding era
— Cricketwallah (@cricketwallah) January 11, 2021
The post-lunch session began tilting in India’s favour. From what looked like an ominous final day for Team India against hostile bowling, Pant’s audacious stroke-play had put them within shouting distance of the mammoth target. Eventually, though, he fell trying to take on Lyon, scoring 97 off just 118 deliveries.
But he had laid the platform. The grit he displayed would certainly have been a factor in the magnificent 256-ball partnership that followed, between Hanuma Vihari and Ravi Ashwin, helping India draw the game, and keeping the series alive at 1-1.
January 19, 2021
Australia v India, series level at 1-1
Day 5, fourth Test match, Gabba, Brisbane
In the last hour of play, India was within 63 runs of a famous series win, but was also on a knife’s edge as they were left with five lower-order wickets. As the old cliché goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Pant, who was at the crease at this time, was joined by his former under-19 compatriot, Washington Sundar.
Unusually for this stage of the game, they decided to go on the offense rather than defend. Sundar pulled Cummins for a six, and Pant scored 15 off a Lyon over. With 24 needed off six overs, it was India’s game to lose.
Sundar, however, triggered a mini-collapse by edging one on to his stumps. Shardul Thakur, the hero of the first innings, was caught soon after, trying to slog one on the leg-side. With an injured Navdeep Saini at the other end, Pant knew that this was going to be the biggest moment of his life. There was no room for nerves.
After a period of uncertainty, he hunkered down and scored steadily, before expertly patting down an attempted yorker from Josh Hazlewood down the ground for four. In doing so, he inflicted on the Australians their first defeat at the Gabba in 32 years, as India registered back-to-back Test series wins in Australia on consecutive tours.
— Harbhajan Turbanator (@harbhajan_singh) January 19, 2021
The unbeaten 89 was arguably Pant’s most crucial innings of his career thus far. It was an emotionally draining experience, particularly in the absence of at least half a dozen regulars from the Indian team. Surrounded by his teammates, he could barely hold his emotions together in the post-match presentation.
March 5, 2021
India v England, home team leads series 2-1
Day 2, fourth Test match, Narendra Modi Stadium, Ahmedabad
Rishabh Pant walked in to bat in the first innings with India at 80 for four. They were trailing by 125 runs on a tricky pitch that interested both the spinners, as well as the quicks. Anderson was bowling one of the best spells of the series with an economy rate of almost one, from 15 odd overs. Any result but a win would hamper India’s chances of qualifying for the inaugural WTC final.
Each of Pant’s innings is defined by a logic of its own. But this one had conventional wisdom written all over it. England were playing with only four bowlers in this match, one of them being all-rounder Ben Stokes, who hadn’t bowled much this series. India’s young wicketkeeper decided to tire out the Englishmen, who were already reluctant to bowl their premier left arm spinner Jack Leach against him. Through the series, he had made Leach what the Aussies would call his bunny.
— Ian Bell (@Ian_Bell) March 5, 2021
By the time Washington Sundar joined him once again, India was 160-odd for 6. The chips were clearly down. That’s when the two decided to recreate the Gabba magic. They put together 113 for the seventh wicket, in what would finally become a series-winning partnership. Pant scored 46 from his last 28, including that falling reverse sweep against Anderson, en route to his first hundred (101) on home soil.
View this post on Instagram
The internet was full of congratulatory messages, including a very special Instagram post from former West Indian legend Brian Lara. He asked the young southpaw to reflect on what could be the most ‘satisfying’ achievement in his young career so far.
“You cherish such achievements by sharing them with your family, talking to them, or going on a vacation.” Pant laughs, “But these days life is so fast, Bhaiya that there’s not enough time to cherish a particular achievement. When everything is over at the end, we will cherish it all together.”
It’s the first time that he shows glimpses of his chirpy, behind-the-stumps persona beneath a nirvana-esque demeanour that he has cloaked through our conversation. He admits that his life has changed by leaps and bounds from when he was a teenager with limited understanding of how to handle fame and adulation at the highest level. He reiterates his determination to succeed across formats as his primary goal.
Pant followed up on his Test success against England, with excellent performances in both T20s as well as ODIs, in March. Following Shreyas Iyer’s injury layoff, he was then selected as the captain of the Delhi Capitals for IPL 2021, ahead of many senior pros in the squad.
“You have to give others their space,” he tells me. “There are moments of individual frustration and moments of collective jubilation. At the end of the day, we are all professionals, and we respect each other.”
The biggest captaincy challenge, according to him, is to select a playing XI from a group of vastly talented individuals, yet keeping everyone happy in the squad.
His go-to approach has been to lead by action, almost in a Gandhian manner of walking the talk. “When you want others to follow your leadership, you have to imbibe your own instructions first.”
Wicket-keepers with Test hundreds in England, Australia and India:
— Wisden India (@WisdenIndia) March 5, 2021
The tactics need not be identical, but his clarity of thought is certainly reminiscent of a young MS Dhoni. As a like-for-like comparison, before turning 24, Dhoni had also earned a reputation as a fearsome limited-overs batsman, on the back of his famous match-winning 148 against Pakistan, in just his sixth ODI, a knock that announced his arrival on the international stage. In the next decade, the Ranchi-born cricketer would fulfil his destiny as the most successful limited-overs Indian captain. But Dhoni was, at times, found lacking as a batsman in the longer formats, especially overseas. Pant, on the other hand, has already helped India win Tests both home and away. Of course, Dhoni was much more than just a batsman; and his giant shoes would be hard to fill for anyone, including Pant.
— Rishabh Pant (@RishabhPant17) May 8, 2021
The young wicketkeeper-batsman is well on course to being a vital part of India’s efforts to win the WTC final next month, and also in the team’s plans for the T20 World Cup later this year. But for the moment, he’s glad to be at home in Delhi with his family, riding out the second COVID wave, after having spent nearly nine months in the bio-bubble.
He made a donation towards COVID relief last week and has urged everyone to follow protocols and get vaccinated. “It’s scary outside. It is scary watching so many people getting affected. But in truth, we can’t do much apart from asking people to take precautions,” he says.
View this post on Instagram
Despite everything that he has done, he is still only 23. And like anyone at his age, he misses “going to the mall, walking in the park, and partying with friends.” But his sense of curiosity and desire to learn is limitless. Our conversation ends with him donning the interviewer’s hat. “You talk to so many people in your profession; how do you judge a person,” he enquires.
He listens keenly as I ramble about my observations on humour, wit, honesty, and authenticity. But I also make it a point to share my observation of his visible sagaciousness. He laughs, “Sometimes my friends also mock me saying ‘itna samajhdaar kab se ho gaya hai tu’.”
With increasing phone call anxiety in these past weeks, this was one call that brought cheer to my rather dispiriting stay indoors. Maybe we all need to try finding a silver lining in these testing times, like this talented Gen Z cricketer, and his upbeat attitude towards life and career.
Image credit: Noise, Getty Images