India vs Australia: Rishabh Pant's attacking form sparks bat vs gloves debate

Teams can’t compromise on the quality of wicketkeepers in Tests. But for ODIs and T20s, they need one who bat as well.

Pant sank Australia with a match-winning show in the fourth Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Brisbane.   -  Getty Images

Farokh Engineer nearly hit a century before lunch in the Madras Test against the West Indies in 1967. He was left stranded at 94. Engineer went on to complete his century and establish himself as a regular with that innings.

Many years later, Nayan Mongia took up the opener’s slot and hit a 152 against Australia in the one-off Delhi Test in 1996. “That knock helped me cement my place,” remembers Mongia.

Wicketkeepers are expected to contribute with the bat, too. From Engineer to Syed Kirmani, Kiran More, Mongia, M. S. K. Prasad, Vijay Dahiya, Ajay Ratra, M. S. Dhoni and Wriddhiman Saha, it was made clear that they would have to bat well. So when a 14-year-old Rishabh Pant first went to respected coach Tarak Sinha for guidance, he said, “I can bat well and keep wickets, Sir.”

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Pant, who sank the Australians with a match-winning show in the fourth Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Brisbane on January 19, was quick to understand the importance of batting to a wicketkeeper. He worked on his skills behind the stumps, but those could not be improved overnight. So he chose the bat in order to raise his stock.

“Can you bat?” was not always a question a coach would ask of a wicketkeeper. If he could bat, it was to be considered a “bonus,” said noted coach Gurcharan Singh. Ergo, any youngster wanting to don the wicketkeeper’s gloves could add his batting skills to cement his place in a team.

Wriddhiman Saha’s work behind the stumps gives the bowlers far more confidence than Pant’s.   -  K. R. Deepak

 

Gradually, with the advent of one-day cricket, the wicketkeeper’s role changed.

“In modern-day cricket, it is imperative that along with the wicketkeeper, even the specialist bowlers need to chip in with the bat. Wicketkeepers who are fighting for a place in their state or country’s team would have already played a lot of domestic cricket in the various age groups, and the onus is on them to improve their batting skills simultaneously with their wicketkeeping. The definition of a pure wicketkeeper has changed,” says Sadanand Viswanath, who excelled when India won the World Championship of Cricket tournament in Australia in 1985.

In recent times, there have varied responses to the debate surrounding Saha and Pant. Pant can decimate a bowling attack; Saha cannot. But Saha’s work behind the stumps gives the bowlers far more confidence.

“A pure wicketkeeper will always be preferred in the longer format. Take our very own Indian cricket team’s fight for the wicketkeeper’s spot. Pant has changed the dynamics that a wicketkeeper can bring into the team with his awesome innings of 97 in Adelaide. He will keep on improving technically as a wicketkeeper, correcting a few basics in his footwork, which will eliminate any kind of guesswork. Teams that have tried to have a stop-gap arrangement in the specialist wicketkeeper position have paid a heavy price,” notes Viswanath.

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Speaking about Pant’s work behind the stumps, More emphasises: “Leave him alone. There is too much scrutiny surrounding Pant. His batting gives such a boost to the team’s overall strength. He needs a bit of help. It is a process and improvement will not happen overnight. We are the only team in the world not to have a wicketkeeping coach.”

More, however, agreed that wicketkeeping standards cannot be compromised at any cost. “Pant can improve. Give him time. You can be an exceptionally good wicketkeeper, but you have to contribute with the bat, too. You need to get 40-50 runs which can lend depth to the batting and also help balance the attack. We have Saha, Pant, Ishan Kishan, Sanju Samson all striving to make an impact,” he said.

In Viswanath’s opinion, “A pure wicketkeeper needs to contribute with his batting skills more nowadays than before. Adam Gilchrist was the first wicketkeeper who changed the responsibilities and duties of the modern-day wicketkeeper... He contributed immensely to the success of Australia both in Tests and ODIs (One-Day Internationals), and perhaps a few T20 (Twenty20) matches. Even Rahul Dravid keeping wickets for India was a winning combination and a selfless, awesome attitude.”

Nayan Mongia hit a 152 as an opener against Australia in the one-off Delhi Test in 1996. “That knock helped me cement my place,” he says.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

More suggests having a group of observers to monitor domestic cricket exclusively for wicketkeepers. “There are technical issues and also endurance and commitment. A ’keeper has to be at his best all the time. We have to note his attitude, movement, concentration, footwork, collection, positioning, balance. You have to follow the ’keeper’s graph from his junior days. Pant came to me for one day in the last two seasons. How can I work on his flaws in just one day?” says More.

Former national selection committee chairman M. S. K. Prasad, also a wicketkeeper, suggested a “horses for courses” policy. “For us, Saha was the best wicketkeeper in Asian conditions and Pant outside Asia. I believe that a wicketkeeper has to be considered an all-rounder. Seven batsmen, including the wicketkeeper, can give you the option to include four bowlers.”

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Prasad defends Pant strongly. “Please look at his exceptional abilities — 10 catches in one Test (in England). The only wicketkeeper from India to have hit a Test century in Australia and England. He is one player who will serve Indian cricket for long and we should treat him with care. He is a great talent and can deliver in all formats of the game. We have to understand that the days of pure wicketkeepers are gone. A wicketkeeper has to be a good batsman now to lend balance.”

“We can’t compromise on the quality of the wicketkeeper for Test matches. You have to have a ’keeper who can bat well in ODIs and T20s, but in Test matches, I want a wicketkeeper who is very good with his skills,” says Mongia.

The solution lies in the “horses for courses” policy that Prasad suggests. “On pitches in Asia, a wicketkeeper has to have good skills because the balls turns and then the bounce can be uneven. Outside Asia, it is the bounce and pace that the keeper has to adjust to. But one thing is certain: He has to bat well in all formats of the game.”

Sadanand Viswanath excelled when India won the World Championship of Cricket tournament in Australia in 1985. “Pant has changed the dynamics that a wicketkeeper can bring into the team with his awesome innings of 97 in Adelaide,” he says.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

A wicketkeeper with the ability to bat is key, and, as More insists, a specialised coach to assist the wicketkeepers in the team is a “must” in modern times. “We have ignored this aspect for long. Not any more,” More adds.

India’s overflowing support staff would gain with the induction of a wicketkeeping coach, who could also work on the stumpers’ temperament.

But as far as batting prowess is concerned, don’t be surprised if some day, when asked to open the innings, Pant comes up with a thundering Test century before lunch.