Rishabh Pant: How wicketkeeper went from back-up to India's Ben Stokes
Rishabh Pant looks set to start as India's wicketkeeper for their four-Test series against England after a superb batting display in Australia, but there are still questions over his skills behind the stumps
By James Walker-Roberts
Last Updated: 02/02/21 8:01am
Rishabh Pant was left out of India's side for the first Test against Australia but finished the series as one of their star performers. Can he do it again against England? And will his wicketkeeping skills be up to scratch against spin?
Dropped. Drops. Delight.
Rishabh Pant has experienced all kinds of emotions already in 2021.
Left out of the India side for the first Test against Australia, the 23-year-old wicketkeeper turned out to be the star of the series with two match-defining innings that helped secure a memorable series win.
His 97 in the second innings of the third Test and unbeaten 89 to help clinch victory in the fourth should ensure that he keeps his place - and the gloves - when India face England in a four-Test series at home.
That was far from assured a month ago.
Pant hasn't played a home Test for India since 2018, with 36-year-old Wriddhiman Saha preferred because of his superior skills behind the stumps. Even in Australia, Pant's credentials as wicketkeeper were called into question, particularly after he dropped opener Will Pucovski twice on the first day of the third Test.
"The knock on Rishabh is always going to be on his keeping," said former Australia captain Ricky Ponting, who worked with Pant in the Indian Premier League.
The missed chances off Pucovski saw Pant's average rise to 0.86 dropped catches per Test played.
He has also dropped more catches than any other keeper (to have played at least 10 matches) since the start of 2018.
But Saha has given his backing to Pant and says he is improving.
"No one learns algebra in class. You always go step by step. He is giving his best and will definitely improve. He has matured and proved himself. In the long run, it augurs well for the Indian team."
The looming problem for Pant is that most of his troubles behind the stumps have been with spin. CricViz Analyst revealed during the third Test against Australia that Pant's catch success percentage in Tests is 93 per cent against pace and 56 per cent against spin. That is partly why he has only played two of his 16 Tests in India.
But then there's the trade-off with his batting.
Are a couple of dropped catches worth it if they are accompanied by a match-changing knock? While his keeping was criticised in Australia, his batting earned plenty of plaudits.
Australia coach Justin Langer described Pant as "fearless" for his heroics in the fourth Test and said it "reminded me of Ben Stokes' innings at Headingley". Former England captain Michael Vaughan also compared Pant to England all-rounder Stokes and former India opener Virender Sehwag.
"He is up there with Ben Stokes as the most enjoyable cricketers to watch. When Pant goes out to bat, I watch. I would not want to be next in because you know things will happen. But if he continues to play the game with the joy and energy he has at the moment as if he is still an 11-year-old then he will pose so many challenges to the opposing team.
"Sehwag put the fear into opposing bowlers and Pant has the same ability at six to do the same. He will make mistakes and get out for low scores at times but he will also win so many games."
It's clear that Pant has the talent with the bat, now it's about improving his keeping and his consistency.
He is the only Indian wicket-keeper to score Test centuries in Australia and England and has shone in the Indian Premier League, but his successes have mostly been fleeting. There have also been plenty of ups and downs in his career, with his 'up' in Australia preceded by a largely disappointing 2020 and criticism over his fitness during the IPL.
It seems likely that his performances in Australia will see him start the series against England as the wicket-keeper batting at number six. There's also the option for India to play him purely as a batsman, with Saha behind the stumps, but that would reduce their bowling options.
India batting coach Vikram Rathour says Pant, who made 92 in both his previous two Test innings on home soil, will be "extremely important going ahead".
"We have always believed that he is one of the exceptional players," Rathour told the Hindustan Times.
"He had a tough time last year or so. But he has been working hard, training hard. We all believed that on his day he is a match-winner."
Will Pant be India's match-winner against England? Or will his skills behind the stumps prove a problem?