Rishabh Pant, the wicketkeeper, rises to reward selectors' faith

After standing up to R. Ashwin and Axar Patel on turning tracks earlier this year, and now in England, standing back to the pacers, you must be wondering why his spot in the team was ever up for a debate.

India stumper Rishabh Pant dives to save a shot from Jonny Bairstow during the Lord's Test.   -  GETTY IMAGES

India's 151-run win at Lord's had many sub-plots - the face-off between Virat Kohli and James Anderson, Mohammed Shami's bravado with the bat, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane's survival fight and Mohammed Siraj's aggression.

But what flew under the radar, amid all the drama, was Rishabh Pant's keeping.

From fans at the Feroz Shah Kotla, Pant's home ground, chanting "Dhoni! Dhoni! Dhoni!" after a failed review from him in 2019 to raucous chants of "Pant! Pant! Pant!" greeting his moves in front of and behind the stumps, Pant has come a long way.

"There has been a remarkable improvement in his keeping skills, and it has happened because of the kind of work he has put in," says Saba Karim, ex-India international and former national selector. "His footwork has been more decisive. His biggest test was going to be in England. If you compare his keeping skills from the 2018 England tour to now, there is a huge difference."

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A wobbly Dukes ball, uncertain bounce, and dramatic late swing pose a stiff challenge to overseas wicketkeepers. "The ball tends to wobble late after it has crossed the stumps ... and for that, it is important to have good footwork and have the rare ability to watch the ball into the gloves. I have seen all that in Pant's keeping, and I am sure we will see the confidence he has in his keeping skill reflect on his batting skill also."

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Pant's footwork this series has been minimal. He has a stable base, which has allowed him to line up the ball — despite the late swing —and not get caught wrong-footed and adjust hastily. In the third Test in Nottingham 2018, Pant dropped Jos Buttler on 1. He moved to the leg-side to align himself with Jasprit Bumrah's angle and then had to compensate. Bumrah induced a thick outside edge that went to the right of Pant, who failed to pouch it despite a full-length dive. Buttler went on to make a hundred.

Three years later, Pant's judicious feet movement has led to him reading the line right more often than not. Pant, the keeper, has risen to reward the selectors' faith. "For an exceptionally talented youngster like him, one needs to have a conducive environment to grow," says Karim.

"International cricket is demanding. You need to work on your skills in different conditions against quality bowlers... the more you hone your skills, it becomes second nature to you when you keep wickets in an important game — all that has happened with Pant. The coaches have worked very hard, and the results are there for everyone to see."

One thing that has pleasingly remained unchanged through the last two years is Pant's bristling energy behind the stumps. Confident, skilful and energetic, Pant is the jewel in the crown of a talent pool brimming with prospects. But his first task was to compete with a technically superior Wriddhiman Saha - hailed by captain Virat Kohli as "the best wicketkeeper in the world" - for a place in Test XI.

The healthy competition helped the team and Pant. He was also given the space and confidence to find his way back. The result is a buoyant and efficient Pant, with bat and keeping gloves.

According to Karim, Pant is getting better at rationing his concentration as well. "You don't need long hours of concentration in Tests. You need peak concentration for minimum time, which is from the time the ball is released till it thuds into your gloves or if a batsman has played a shot," he says. "To keep for a longer duration, you need to master this. I feel Pant has done that. We see him chatting between deliveries which is fine, that is so natural to him, and he should continue to do so."

Pant- the batsman in action.   -  Getty Images

 

Pant is a management favourite because of his class as a batsman. He has shown that in plenty. However, his glovework was one of the reasons that kept him on tenterhooks. After being compact standing up to R. Ashwin and Axar Patel on turning tracks earlier this year, Pant has been agile and athletic standing back to the pacers in England. You would be wondering why his spot in the team was ever up for a debate.

And Pant has no intention of setting limits on his on-field progress.

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