He has raw, uninhibited power, and his shots radiate class. And he can entertain the crowds with humongous sixes, summoned almost at will. He is Rishabh Pant, India’s most exciting young wicket-keeper-batsman. A batsman, moreover, cast in the Virender Sehwag-esque mould--not just in terms of brisk scoring, but also in diet. Both were brought up on a heavy, staple diet of milk that gave them enough strength to smite balls a long distance without a fuss.
But unlike Sehwag, Pant would drink the Maltova-mixed milk directly from the jug, in a few quaffs, so fond he was of it. Pant would also carry two tiffin boxes to school--one to eat during school hours, and the other after his daily extra practice sessions following his classes. Those gruelling sessions comprised running extra rounds to burn calories, besides polishing his wicket-keeping and batting. From an early stage, Pant’s ability to clear the boundary at will left everyone mesmerised, first in domestic tournaments and now internationally.
Pant’s big knocks, studded with massive hits that demoralised opponents earned him the India T20 cap in 2017. The 21-year-old player is now with the Indian team at the World Cup in England, sent as a replacement for the injured Shikhar Dhawan. Pant missed the bus initially, apparently narrowly, but not before the nation debated whether he or Dinesh Karthik was more deserving of a World Cup XV spot. Karthik got the nod; Pant was put on standbye. They may have plumped for experience, that cherished commodity, but Pant has made such an impact on selectors, team management, and fans that despite three wicket-keepers in the squad—M.S. Dhoni, Karthik, and K.L. Rahul—selectors still picked him.
Pant’s coach and Dronacharya Award winner Tarak Sinha says his ward should have been picked initially. “But my opinion doesn’t count much as the selectors must have had good reasons to not pick him in the XV. They must have obviously thought about the team’s betterment. Rishabh was disappointed, but I told him that age was on his side and that he had a bright future,” Sinha, who has produced many international players from his Delhi-based Sonnet Club, tells Outlook.
Following his rapid rise from school cricket in his hometown Roorkie in Uttarakhand and local age-group tournaments, Pant seems to have cemented his place in the Test team, besides being the heir apparent to Dhoni in the two limited-over formats. It shouldn’t surprise if he, like Dhoni, becomes the first-choice stumper for all three formats.
Pant had a good 2019 season with Delhi Capitals, aggregating 488 runs at a strike rate of 162.66 to become the seventh top-scorer of the IPL. That performance, plus his fine wicket-keeping (he equalled the world record of 11 catches in the Adelaide Test) and batting (350 runs at an average of 58.33) in the four-Test series in Australia in 2018-19 had the selectors convinced. “He is very much in our World Cup plans. He’s a champion in the making and even he’s not fully aware the kind of potential he has,” selection committee chairman M.S.K. Prasad had said in January.
Still, Pant was ignored for the World Cup as Karthik and “three-dimensional” Vijay Shankar were preferred. But to keep him match-fit, the selectors picked him for India ‘A’ to tour the West Indies. Then, Shikhar Dhawan got injured, and Pant replaced him. This, points out Sinha, has happened due to a remarkable improvement in Pant’s temperament, besides his core wicket-keeping and batting abilities. “Wicket-keeping is most difficult in Tests. And Rishabh has improved in Tests, and also as a batsman. His two centuries, against England at The Oval in 2018 and against Australia in Sydney this January are proof enough that he has patience, and that his temperament has improved. When he was leaving for the World Cup, I reminded him that every run matters,” says Sinha, who doubles up as Pant’s financial advisor.
Pant’s coach, Dronacharya awardee Tarak Sinha, with students at the Sonnet Club.
Post-IPL, Sinha made Pant work on his shortcomings in his wicket-keeping after his performance behind the wickets was criticised in the home ODI series against Australia in March. “If you consider him as India’s best wicket-keeper, you should ignore such errors. And batting-wise, I advised him to not to chase records and instead let records chase him,” says Sinha.
Krishna Bhaskar Pillai, who saw Pant from close up as chief Delhi coach a few seasons ago, is completely captivated by him. “He’s very confident and has enormous self-belief—hallmark of a great cricketer. Like Sehwag, when he has to hit, he hits…there’s no hesitation. His bat speed is so good that nine out of 10 times he connects. He is confident about hitting the ball over long-on and long-off fielders, against a pacer or a spinner, due to exceptional bat speed. He picks the line and length [of the ball] very early,” explains the former Delhi captain.
Pant also has tremendous stamina, a fact that is eclipsed by his destructive exploits with the bat. One match that demonstrated this was Delhi’s Ranji Trophy game against Maharashtra at the Wankhede Stadium in October 2016. After Maharashtra batted for the first two days, and Pant kept wickets for 173 overs, he returned with the bat to smash 308 (42 boundaries and nine sixes) in an almost eight-hour rampage. The effort spoke volumes about his fitness and mental ability. “The mental frame of his batting is something like that of a Viv Richards or a Sehwag, or even Sandeep Patil or Kirti Azad,” says Pillai without hesitation.
While Pant makes rapid progress, he misses the man who many years ago got him to “promise” to earn the India cap—father Rajinder, a university-level opener- wicket-keeper, who passed away in April 2017. He had told Outlook a little earlier he that since his own father couldn’t “afford his cricket”—they were five siblings—he lived his dream through Rishabh. “I told ‘Munna’ after a summer camp of Tarak sir that I want him to represent India and that I would give him whatever was required for that. He promised me: ‘Baba, I will do it.’ Then, we hugged each other,” an emotional Rajinder had recalled.
Rajinder used innovative methods to train Pant since he was five. “I used to make him practice with a cork ball on the cemented rooftop of our Roorkee home where the ball came faster. There was no turf pitch in the city. I used to tie a pillow to his chest so that my little boy didn’t get hurt while facing faster deliveries. But he did sustain a fracture. It was meant to take the fear [of facing fast bowling] out of him. This was extra coaching, apart from what he received in school,” he had said.
Pant’s mother Saroj, principal at a school her husband started in 1992 in Roorkee, made sacrifices to support him too. She and little Rishabh would take five-hour bus journeys from Roorkee to Delhi, starting at 3 am, on weekends so that the kid could attend the Sonnet Club’s net practice sessions on Saturdays and Sundays at Sri Venkateswara College. The two would embark on the return journey on Sunday evenings to reach Roorkee by midnight. This punishing routine went on for about a year, until Pant was admitted to a school in Delhi.
Money was initially a constraint. “It was tough to buy bats, pads for him because his bats would cost between Rs.20,000 to Rs.30,000. Once, during an under-19 tournament in Delhi, he broke three bats in quick succession. In a lighter vein, I said people buy jewellery and here I am buying bats for you,” Saroj, who still indulges her son’s love for tandoori chicken and paneer parathe, says with a smile.
Things have changed for good for the Pant family. Today, the star cricketer has two top-of-the-line cars in his garage. He tastefully renovated his home in Roorkee with IPL money and started a restaurant for his sister, an MBA and a former junior national basketball player, there. After the 2019 IPL, he took his mother on a holiday to Dubai for a well-earned rest. On his return, he received the news of his selection as a ‘cover’ for the injured Dhawan, and promptly took another flight, to England. “His feet are firmly on ground; he has no bad habits. His only love is cars, but he can indulge in it as it’s his money,” says Sinha. Everyone waits for Pant to make his World Cup debut. All of them expect it to be a smashing one.