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When did the boy in the bubble become a man?

by Gaurav Sethi

How Rishabh Pant outgrew his former self to become cricketing gentry. 



Rishabh Pant’s eyes are wide open, attentive; he’s taking in every word that Harsha Bhogle is putting to him. Pant is still. He answers to the point. Bhogle is speaking to Pant about his happy demeanour. Pant shows little emotion, continues to answer, much like a 20 something at an IIM interview. There’s an effervescence to Bhogle, largely professional but genuinely happy to be speaking to Rishabh Pant. 

How can you not love Rishabh Pant? 

 *** 

 In the recent England Test series, Axar Patel brought out a barrage of burbling chirps from Pant. He called Axar many things, mostly endearing, often funny. Meanwhile, Axar made a joke out of England’s batsmen. Pant-Patel were an outrageous pairing. 

In Delhi Capitals’ fifth match, Axar Patel returned after recovering from Covid. Pant did none of that “Well bowled, Axar Patel!” or “Bapu!” calling. In a little over a month, Pant had changed significantly. His eyes appear wider, far more open; his mouth somewhat closer, almost pursed. 

In a few years, the change that Rishabh Pant has undergone, both as a cricketer and a person, are probably far more than what most go through in a lifetime. 

A few IPL seasons back, Pant was the chosen one – he was in promos with MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli. In Pant, the broadcasters found a compelling new story, and a potent counterpoint to Dhoni and Kohli. 

In the 2020 season, Pant was arguably unfit, overweight. It appeared he did not have access to exercising equipment. Yet along with Shikhar Dhawan and his skipper, Shreyas Iyer he handheld DC’s batting into the final. His strike rate was at an all-time low – 114, that, compared to an overall IPL strike rate of 150+. An average of 31, three not outs, and his season’s first 50 in the final. The season was as much about realisation as it was about restraint. 

The Australia and England Test series that followed made Rishabh Pant the leader of the pack. In Virat Kohli’s absence, he was India’s most compelling batsman. What followed against England was an encore. Pant was back playing all three formats, first choice wicketkeeper for India, edging past Wriddhiman Saha, Sanju Samson, KL Rahul. 

It’s no coincidence that Pant and Pujara make a solid pairing in the middle. Pant is no stranger to Pujara’s restraint in the middle. 

In the current IPL season, Pant restrained himself from hitting a six in the first two games at Wankhede. After 37/4 against Rajasthan Royals, Pant showed his other options as a batsman – he stayed deep in the crease, breaking Rahul Tewatia’s length repeatedly for fours either side of point. On show was Pant’s sharp blade and mind, an ability to harness his ego which often made him maul spinners over the top. 

Five matches later, Pant has hit just two sixes. Yet he has four wins as a captain. 

*** 

At this stage, Pant’s numbers are uncannily like last season’s; the averages are similar, there’s that one fifty. The strike rate is much higher at 131. With two matches at Chepauk and three at Wankhede; the added demands of a new captaincy, sustained life in a bio bubble from last season’s IPL; it does appear Pant is playing well within himself. With the added knowledge that after him, the batting can be a tad thin. 

 Shreyas Iyer’s absence led to the addition of Steven Smith at three. That Smith is more adept at ODIs than T20s suits DC’s approach – his addition is to stall last season’s collapses. The team’s approach is straight out of the MS Dhoni playbook – to take the game deep rather than reveal one’s hand too early and risk losing it in the power play. 

This approach isn’t too dissimilar to Pant’s Test approach. Most Pant’s Test innings start with the measured drive down mid-off or a cut past point for that single to get him off the mark. Pant the Test batsman has all the time in the world. There’s an acceptance that he can bat on, there are no limited overs. Till he reaches the 90s at least. 

 *** 

There was an almighty serious video of Rohit Sharma interviewing Roshabh Pant about his approach. In between, there’s some pokerfaced leg pulling from Rohit– “you think of all this?”. Pant remains poker faced and gives an earnest answer. He is aware. This goes on the BCCI.TV feed. 

As with most Indian cricketers, there are numerous videos of Pant doing his gym routine. There’s something of him working out to the desi rip-off of Spiderman. Espiderman – the song that Pant made famous from behind the stumps. Yeah, he pretty much sang it all. Will Pant sing something as DC captain?

Beyond being the DC captain, Pant is also the brand ambassador for the franchise owners. 

*** 

Ravichandran Ashwin appeals for LBW. As with most Ashwin appeals, he’s convinced and wants to review. There’s a consultation with his wicketkeeper and captain. Pant’s eyes are stretched wide open. It’s as if he’s listening with them. Eight seconds are left, neither as hasty as Kohli, nor too last minute as Rahane – Pant nods a slight disapproval; there’s a hint of a smile, in the sparkle of his eyes. 

*** 

In the last eight months or so, often much about Pant the cricketer conjured Paul Simon’s song, Boy in the bubble. Little did I notice when he became a man in the bubble. 

And in that bubble Pant knew he needed to show strength. Strength that was born out of not hitting sixes. Embracing boredom. Denying himself. Batting till the end. Batting in the beginning. Opening with Shikhar Dhawan in the Super Over. Reverse scooping Rashid Khan for four. Scrambling that last ball leg bye. Going for a second when the game was already won. 

And midst all that, thankfully, even as DC captain, he continues to chirp his easy-easy-easy many times over. What a soundtrack. Even when it goes mute. It’s within us. From Brisbane to Ahmedabad. 

How can you not love Rishabh Pant? 

 First published here

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