It’s Dhoni, it’s Gilchrist, no, it’s Rishabh Pant

Under the gloomy skies of Edgbaston, Rishabh Pant took another leap to greatness. He shot 146 of 111 balls in an astonishing display of counter-punching to make the first day of the series an undeniably decisive one for India.

For much of the day, the match was in the iron grip of England. After veteran James Anderson and rookie Matthew Potts hit in unison to bring India to 98/5, Pant and Ravindra Jadeja combined to add 222 runs to not only save India from danger, but put them on the rise. By the time the couple parted ways, India had galloped to 320 runs.

It begins to be a recurring theme: the team in ruins, series at stake, bowlers with their tails up, and then a cheerful, short, slightly corpulent young man enters, who without a hint of obvious tension, without a hint of uncertainty, change the game. MS Dhoni was coolness redefined, but his face was raging with intensity, those eyes gleaming with determination.

Pant, at least in testing, has redefined the limits of freshness that Dhoni has set. None of that searing intensity emanates. He bats with a giggle, a sense of joy, as if he had just turned up for a Sunday night club game with his friends after a nap, against the most prolific swing bowler in history, or the youngest bowler fiercest in the place. Even after running across the floor and motioning for Anderson to make a four, he was seen giggling with the speedy bowler, who was now as amused as he was accustomed to Pant’s eye for the unthinkable.

Anderson was again sublime, but Pant did not spare him. Just the fourth ball he had faced, Anderson’s second at a destructive pace, the southpaw slid across the floor and tried to catch it in the peephole screen. He missed, then smiled, and then repeated those blows. Later, Pant landed a couple of reverse shots at the swinging bowling colossus, then missed an almighty shot, nearly flipping over. Undeterred, he hit him in the head for a four.

When their spearhead bowler is treated with such arrogant disdain, the morale of the rest simply falls apart, like a balloon punctured with a needle. None of Matthew Potts, Stuart Broad, Ben Stokes, and least of all Jack Leach knew how to stop it, at least contain it. How rude it seems that Stokes pushed Leach like a trap. Prior to this game, Pant had plundered 88 runs on 57 balls off the left arm spinner. On the way to his fifth Test hundred, he hit him for five fours and a six. The move backfired as it gave Pant an irresistible tempo.

Leach’s lynching included, shortly after Pant completed his hundred, 20 runs on four balls. The 10-stop in the last Test, against New Zealand, might have seemed like it happened a long time ago.

All in one day of work

But Pant’s most glorious virtue is that he makes the counterpunching of some of the world’s fiercest fast, from Anderson to Kagiso Rabada, from Pat Cummins to Mitchell Starc, seem ridiculously common or oddly routine in test matches. A classic example was when Potts showed up just after tea. The first was a lifter who hit him. Potts frowned; Evaded pants. Pant responded with two fours on the next three balls, firing a drive between middle and coverage before maneuvering himself and whipping him through the point. Broad was plucked through the covers before he was cloaked by a couple to complete a sensational hundred.

Much about Pant was like Gilchrist peak: from unhurried striking play to the uncanny ability to sense a moment, seize it and snatch the game from opponents, the ability to put a smile on his face even in the face of adversity and the ability to absorb pressure. There have been several unworthy suitors to compare with Gilchrist. As absurd as it sounds, Pant is the closest anyone has ever been in the vicinity to him. There have been several great goalkeepers in their own right during and after Gilchrist – Kumar Sangakkara was an undisputed legend, as were Dhoni and Brendon McCullum, amidst a host of suitors – but no one has embodied Gilchrist’s free spirit quite like Pant, or excite the audience like him. No stress, no pain, no complication.

Behind the outer layer of dazzle and audacity, there is not only self-confidence but also a calculating mind. Pant doesn’t try to reverse every ball he faces; he nor does he cut every ball off the stump. If you look back at each inning, the pace is more or less the same, the shots he plays are similar. Initially, he attempts to unsettle the bowler with a bold stroke, before calming down. Then, for 30-40 balls, he plays only one percentage of cricket: he bowls full balls, cutting the ones near the stumps with a flick of the wrists, before expanding and unpacking his entire repertoire. There may be tensions of heterodoxy in his game, but predominantly, he plays orthodox shots. The soundness of his defensive technique often goes unnoticed: unlike most of his colleagues, he had time to defend himself, either by leaning forward or swinging back. To a great extent, he left the balls off the stump wisely.

After the disintegration of Kohli’s form, Pant is the most anticipated Indian batsman in the middle. There is anticipation, hope and belief that something special will unfold. He sometimes gets angry (he’s still only 24 years old), but on dark days like Edgbaston, he sheds light.

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