The convincing win recorded by South Africa at the Wanderers in Johannesburg once again proved what a great leveller game of cricket could be. India won the first Test, normally the nemesis for the touring side, with ease and was looking forward to the encounter at Wanderers where they had not lost a Test. But, as luck would have it, they had to take the field without Virat Kohli, the skipper and main batsman, and got further hampered as the match progressed due to fast bowler Mohammed Siraj developing hamstring trouble. The hosts seized the openings offered to them with alacrity and built on the missteps of the visitors to win this game by a margin of seven wickets.
It can be said without any element of doubt that India lost this Test due to poor batting. In the first innings, none of the batters, except stand in captain K L Rahul, could handle the stuff delivered to them by the South African quicks. Even as knives were being sharpened for the heads of Cheteswar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, who failed yet again in the first knock, the two redeemed themselves with fighting half-centuries when the side batted again. Other than these three, the only other batsman who showed some degree of comfort in tackling the bowlers was Hanuma Vihari, who ran out of partners when batting on 40 in the second innings. There were cameos by Ravichandran Aswin and Shardul Thakur, but neither held the quality or substance that could change the course of the game. In short, none of the Indian batsman demonstrated the levels of patience and application that South African captain Dean Elgar showed, while anchoring his side to victory in the second innings.
In the midst of a uniformly unimpressive show by the willow-wielders, the failure of one batsman stood out, solely for the manner in which he was dismissed in the second innings. Ever since he burst on the international stage three years ago Rishabh Pant has earned a name for being an aggressive batter who is not afraid to take the fight to the opposite camp. Taking on the bowlers through a series of attacking shots makes for exhilarating cricket, which is loved by spectators the world over. But this also carries the risk of getting dismissed in an absurdly silly manner on some occasions, which could win disapprovals from all and sundry.
This was what happened to Pant in the second innings of the Johannesburg Test. Test cricket is unique in that it exposes even the slightest deficiencies in the technique of batters, which are then capitalised upon by the bowlers relentlessly, till either a correction is made or the willow-wielder gets dropped from the side. In the case of Pant, opposing sides have found that he is suspect against the fast bowlers delivering the ball from over the wicket that move across the wicket. This discovery has led to a drying up of runs of late as bowlers have used this ploy effectively to keep him quiet before luring him into playing a loose shot.
When Pant walked in to bat on the third day of the Test, Kagiso Rabada was breathing fire, having dismissed Rahane and Pujara in a space of seven balls. Rabada got one to bounce sharply and Pant took a blow on his body. He angled the next ball across the wicket and Pant, sighting an opening, stepped out of the crease with the intention of blasting the ball over the fence at long off. But Rabada had cleverly altered the line of the ball with the result that Pant only succeeded in nicking the ball to give an easy catch to wicketkeeper Kyle Vereyenne. Fall of three quick wickets in a space of 10 balls was a huge setback for the visitors from which they could not recover.
Pant’s batting and the mode of dismissal drew widespread criticism, with Sunil Gavaskar taking the lead and others like Gautam Gambhir and Akash Chopra following suit. Only Sanjay Manjrekar came out in support of Pant stating that the style of batting of the young wicketkeeper had won matches for India in the not too distant past. Even coach Rahul Dravid was forced by repeated media queries to make a statement on the subject saying that he will talk to the batsman on improving his shot selection.
The harshly worded statement of Gavaskar directed at Pant would not have failed to bring a smile of irony on the faces of followers of the game of my generation. In 1983, the same Gavaskar was subjected to vehement criticism for playing a rash shot and throwing away his wicket in the fifth Test of the series against the West Indies at Kolkata. India had gone into the Test trailing 0-2 as the visitors led by Clive Lloyd were determined to inflict a heavy defeat on the hosts. Batting first, India recovered from loss of Gavaskar off the first ball of the match to reach a total of 241, thanks to a gritty knock of 69 by skipper Kapil Dev. The captain then came back to bowl a superb spell that reduced the West Indies to 213/8, before Lloyd and fast bowler Andy Roberts got together for a 161-run stand, that took them to a final tally of 374.
When India batted second time, Gavaskar seemed like a man in a hurry. He struck four crisp boundaries before reaching out to an innocuous ball from Michael Holding which would have passed him safely and edged it to wicket keeper Jeff Dujon. It was a rank bad shot and the crowd greeted his departure with boos and catcalls. They even jeered his wife when she went to attend a function the next day, which raised his hackles and made him swear never to play a Test again on this venue. Skipper Kapil was so upset by the mode of Gavaskar’s dismissal that he questioned the commitment of the latter and the issue between the two was resolved only by the intervention of N K P Salve, then President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
In a strange turn of circumstances, Kapil was dropped from the national side in December, 1984, for playing a poor shot during the second innings of the Test against England at Delhi. Kapil’s dismissal opened the floodgates and Indian tail fell in a heap, thus paving the way for a surprise win for England. The dropping of Kapil for “cricketing reasons” forms one of the dark episodes in the history of Indian cricket. But Kapil did not flinch from this blow and continued with the same style of batting without making any changes. This won matches for India like the semifinals of the World Championship of Cricket against New Zealand in February, 1985, where Kapil helped to get the side to get out of a tricky situation. This also lost the occasional game such as the crucial semifinal of the 1987 World Cup where despite seeing a fielder posted on the deep midwicket boundary Kapil attempted to clear a delivery from Eddie Hemmings over the fence but was caught on the boundary. But here too Kapil had the last laugh as in the first Test of the series against England in 1990, when India needed 24 runs to avoid follow on with one wicket remaining, Kapil smote the same Hemmings for four successive sixers to make sure that England batted again!
What should Pant do now? Should he follow the path of Gavaskar or Kapil? Pant’s batsmanship is not built on the classical copybook lines as Gavaskar but relies more on spotting the ball early supported by an innate ability to play all around the wicket. He, like Kapil, Virender Sehwag and Krishnamachari Srikkanth before him, rely as much on instinct as on the sense of timing that they are blessed with. Restraining such batsmen by placing curbs on their shot selection and strokeplay tend to confuse them. They should be left to play their natural game and they will emerge winners in nine occasions out of ten, rather than the other way around.
Let us leave Pant alone and allow him the latitude to work on his cricket to correct the defect that has crept into his technique. He will soon be back amongst the runs and winning games for the country. We should not forget that he has done something that none of his critics have done so far - winning a match single-handedly with his bat in a Test in Australia. He is too precious a player to be lost in the cross fire indulged in by commentators with the intention of getting more eyeballs and increasing TRPs.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)