Column | Salute to Rishabh Pant

Rishabh Pant
Rishabh Pant in action during the IPL 2024 match against Rajasthan Royals. File photo: PTI

When the current edition of Indian Premier League (IPL) started, one event that followers of the game across the world looked forward to with great anticipation, and with some amount of trepidation as well, was the return of Rishabh Pant to the playing arena. Hence the focus was more on Pant than on the other 21 players or even about the match in progress when Delhi Capitals (DC) took on Punjab Kings (PBKS) on March 23. For the record, Pant batted, kept wickets and led DC without displaying any signs of discomfort or pain, thus indicating that he was back to match fitness, though his team lost the game by four wickets.

After the match, Pant admitted to being emotional and nervous before the game commenced. “Personally, I was pretty nervous but you have to go through this when you enter the field…. This isn’t the first time I am being nervous but pretty happy about that (the return)”. 

Pant did not set the stadium on fire with strokes from his willow. He did not time the ball well and scratched together 18 runs off 13 balls, before being dismissed caught in the deep while attempting to clear the fence. But more important than the runs scored was the fact that he was back on the field, something that did not looked possible when he suffered a car accident that almost claimed his life.

More importantly, Pant kept wickets through the 20 overs that his side was on field. Keeping wickets involve continuous squatting and standing up, actions that place immense pressure on the knee joint and the ligaments that support it. Pant had damaged the ligaments in his knee during the accident and it had required intricate surgeries and extensive rehabilitation to get his knees back in shape. So, keeping wickets in this game was also a test to prove that his knees are in good shape and can withstand the stress that this activity brings.

Injuries are part of any sporting activity and cricket is no exception to this general rule. But the advent of the practice of playing the game round the year places an added pressure on the bodies of cricketers making them more injury prone. Unlike in the past, when top cricketers were seldom forced to take a break from the sport due to injuries, present players are often required to take time off from this activity either to get treatment or to prevent their occurrence. But, with the advances in medical science and researches and studies into sports-related injuries, it has become possible to reduce the period for treating the injury and facilitate a faster recovery.

 Rishabh Pant & Khaleel Ahmed
Delhi Capitals captain Rishabh Pant with Khaleel Ahmed during the match against Rajasthan Royals. File photo: PTI

Pant was away from the game since December, 2022 , when he met with the accident. This meant that he was away from active cricket for close to 15 months. A look at cricket history tells us that there have been couple of outstanding cricketers in the past, who had braved severe injuries that threatened to finish off the careers and emerged stronger after that. These players were forced to stay away from the game for more than a year, yet bounced back and claimed their rightful place in the hall of legends in cricket history. 

The first in this category is Dennis Lillee, the fast bowler from Australia. Lillee started out as a tearaway fast bowler, who wanted to dismiss batsmen by the sheer pace he generated. He was successful in this mission and soon became the most feared pace bowlers in the world. His figures of eight wickets for 29 runs, while bowling against a Rest of the World XI that included in its ranks players such as Gary Sobers, Sunil Gavaskar, Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd stands as testimony to the destruction he was capable of creating during this phase. He took 31 wickets in the Ashes series against England in 1972, again underlining his position as the premier fast bowler in the world.

Dennis Lillee
Dennis Lillee formed a deadly pace bowling combination with Jeff Thomson. File photo: AFP/Tony Ashby

However, the excess focus on speed created problems and Lillee soon started experiencing sharp pain in his back. He continued playing despite this and had a complete breakdown in the West Indies in early 1973. Tests revealed that he had suffered a stress fracture of his lower vertebrae and he was forced to put a plaster cast covering his whole torso for a period of six weeks to ensure complete immobilisation. There were fears whether he could play cricket again, and even if he did so, would he be able to bowl fast? 

Lillee took this as a challenge and undertook an extensive exercise regime to strengthen his back muscles. He also changed his bowling action substantially to bring down pressure on his lower back. He cut down the speed at which he delivered the ball, preferring to focus on variations in swing, seam and lateral movement after pitching. This strategy yielded huge dividends and he was ready to don the national colours again when England toured Australia in 1974-75. England batsmen were weary of Lillee but they were blown away by Jeff Thomson, a new fast bowler who terrorised them with sheer speed. Australia won the series 4-1, with Lillee picking up 25 wickets and Thomson bagging 33. 

There was no looking back for Lillee after this. Despite being away from the world of official cricket for more than two years on account of being associated with Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket (WSC), Lillee broke all existing bowling records and finished his career with 355 wickets in Test matches. After retirement, he took up the job of the chief coach at MRF Pace Foundation in India and helped to mould the career of many budding fast bowlers in our country. He emphasised the importance of fitness and the need to have a regular exercise regime and proper diet, which alone would help fast bowlers survive in the demanding world of international cricket. 

The other legend who came back after a long hiatus following injury was Imran Khan, all-rounder extraordinaire and a highly successful captain for Pakistan. Imran also started out as a fast bowler but honed his skills as a batsman considerably while playing country cricket in England. He blossomed into a top quality all-rounder by the time the 1980s began. He took over the captaincy of the national side in 1982 and transformed a bunch of talented yet mercurial individuals into a highly motivated unit capable of taking on the best in the world. He began by holding England to a 1-1 draw in an away series and then proceeded to blast India 3-0 in such a convincing manner that it led to Sunil Gavaskar losing his captaincy.

However, disaster was just around the corner. At this age, Imran had taken 88 wickets in 13 tests after taking over as captain, which included an awesome tally of 40 scalps against India. He was at the peak of his prowess as a bowler when no batsman could play him with any degree of confidence. Such was the form he was in that he looked like taking a wicket every time he took the ball in his hand. But, this immense effort took its toll on his body and he started experiencing severe pain in his foot even when the series against India was in progress. He took painkillers and continued bowling till the series got over. Investigations revealed a stress fracture of the shin bone on his left foot, which was brought on by the long spells he bowled during this series and worsened on account of continuing to play despite the injury.

This injury forced Imran to take time off the game. Most of the doctors he consulted doubted whether he would be able to play cricket again, let alone bowl. But he kept faith in himself and went through with the full course of rest, which allowed the injury to heal well, and rehabilitation, that helped him go get back to peak physical shape. He resumed playing cricket in end 1984, but stayed away from bowling till he was completely fit to do so. And when he started bowling again, he showed that he had lost none of the pace, venom and skills that made him a match-winner. For the record, Imran continued playing international cricket till 1992 and signed off in style, winning the World Cup for his country.

Kapil Dev and Imran Khan
Kapil Dev and Imran Khan led India and Pakistan to World Cup glory. File photo: AFP/Indranil Mukherjee

There may be many other cricketers who battled injuries and returned successfully to the field after a long recess. Staying away for more than an year from an activity, which one loves besides providing the livelihood, for a period exceeding a year is bound to be painful. Players concerned would be required not only to battle the difficulties thrown up by the injury but also fight self doubts and nagging worries caused by prolonged incarceration. Battling them successfully requires determination, courage, ability to withstand pain, fortitude, optimism and, above all, immense self confidence. Lillee and Imran had all these qualities in ample measure and now Pant has proved that he does not lag behind these maestros in these aspects. 

It is still early days for Pant on the road back to competitive cricket at the highest level. He showed signs of getting back to his best with a 32-ball 51 against Chennai Super Kings on Sunday night.

His acid test will come when he is required to play Test matches, where the limits of his physical fitness and stamina get tested. Pant has been an unqualified success in the longest duration version of the game. Given the determination and drive he has displayed so far, one can be certain that he will pass this test too in flying colours.

This column salutes Pant for the exemplary qualities displayed by him in bouncing back after the accident and getting to peak physical fitness in the shortest possible time. 

Well done, Pant.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.