Dear Ravi Shastri, what happened to 'backing Rishabh Pant to the hilt'?
There is a fine line between being fearless and careless. This is want India's batting coach and team management wants Rishabh Pant to understand as the youngster finds himself out of the Test team. Pant is no ordinary talent - the attacking instinct and flamboyant strike play come naturally to him. At just 21, he has achieved more than many would only have dreamt of but yet the pressure of having the edge in a fiercely competitive side like of India with the burden of filling in the shoes of one of the greatest of the games is too much to ask for.
Pant is no Dhoni and might not even come close to achieving what the former Indian captain managed to in his extraordinary career filled with ups and downs. But the 21-year-old has already shown what he is capable of when set free and told not to curtail his natural instincts with two Test centuries in England and Australia making him the only Indian wicket-keeper batsman to have achieved the feat.
Merely a week ago Ravi Shastri had vowed he will be backing Pant to the hilt, who according to the Indian head coach is in a great space in the Indian dressing room. Pant - a brutal match-winner and a special talent, according to Shastri, has not enjoyed the best of times with the bat in the last couple of months both in white-ball and red-ball cricket. The furore among Indian fans has been such that almost every games he steps in amid Dhoni's continued absence, has become a make or break game for Pant.
Few would have expected him to be dropped from the playing XI for the first Test against South Africa when he had slammed an unbeaten 159 against Australia in Sydney in January this year. From being the darling of selectors and the team management for playing a certain brand of cricket that has been rare in Indian cricket to being left out inexplicably from the purest format after a poor show in limited-overs, Pant might feel cheated.
No one came close to him as he was firmly backed by his captain as India's first-choice wicket-keeper in whites after his hundred in Australia a few months ago, but a couple of poorly executed shots and low returns with the bat following the World Cup has mounted the pressure on Pant, who has nothing but his willow to answer his critics when an opportunity is thrown at him.
Those who are having a go at him need to understand that Pant comes from the Virender Sehwag school of batting with a crystal clear philosophy of going after any bowler irrespective of the conditions and the situation. There aren't may batsmen in present Indian team across formats who can vouch for same qualities barring Hardik Pandya, Rohit Sharma and Kohli himself - who can win games single-handedly.
In Sydney, Pant's knock was a testament to his skills and intent, his 159 was laced with 15 fours and a six making Australian bowlers scratch their heads. He came out to bat with India in a strong position at 329/5 allowing the youngster to play his natural game and make the most of available overs. He aced his role and is expected to do so more often than not if deployed in a similar role where the burden of expectations is off his shoulders.
He has a bright future lying ahead of him which is now stands threatened as he finds himself standing at odds with the team management, which should be looking at future prospects like him than crushing his confidence by dropping him for a 34-year-old, who might not even be around by the time India finish their World Test Championship campaign in 2021.
In Pant, India have a player to nurture for the future and if anything, coach Shastri should be the first one walking up to him to discuss his shortcomings. As in being fearless and careless, there lies a fine line between a shot being a terrific one and horrific one. It's about timing, execution and the right technique. A poor ball deserves to be punished but if the execution is wrong even a rightfully played shot appears to be a reckless one.
The Indian think tank along with Shastri need to identify the weak areas in Pant's batting and come up with ideas to help him in his execution. They need to stay true to Shastri's claim and need to determine what is exactly going wrong for the youngster whether it is his mindset, his temperament, lack of control or poor shot selection. At 21, India need to give him enough breathing space as he continues to find his feet at the highest level. There is ample time before Pant can finally be shown the door and the South Africa series should only be a learning curve for him and not the start of his decline.