The first India-West Indies Test, in Rajkot, told us a lot about what's wrong with Test cricket. If we can't find context and contest in an event scheduled to last five days, we must not blame the paying public for turning their backs on Tests. Cricket offers its fans three formats to watch, and hopefully the Test Championship will fix some of the problems the five-day game faces.
While Pant made an immediate impact in Test cricket when he became the only Indian wicketkeeper to score a century in any of England, New Zealand, Australia or South Africa, Kuldeep is the only player in history to have taken a five-wicket haul in each of the three international formats in one year.
Pant's style of play seems suited to white-ball cricket but he is yet to be given an extended run in ODIs and T20Is. Meanwhile, Kuldeep is still considered the third spinner in Tests.
A good batsman but a so-so keeper
Pant's batting is a cross between that of Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina. His high backlift and uninterrupted downswing are similar to Yuvraj's, and the way he goes over the cover region with a straight bat is similar to how Raina collects runs in limited-overs cricket. In an era where the focus is on bat speed and on cocking the wrist, Pant's methods are a throwback. He has a high backlift, clears the front leg for a free-flowing downswing, and throws his body weight behind the ball to get the most of the momentum generated.
He also has the ability to read the ball from the bowler's hand a little early, which allows him a fraction of a second more to set up. Irrespective of whom he's facing, a mystery spinner like Sunil Narine or a fast bowler like Shannon Gabriel, Pant never seems to be in a hurry.
He might be the finisher India are seeking in limited overs. MS Dhoni is certain to play the 2019 World Cup but he is no longer the finisher the team needs. So how about letting Dhoni continue as keeper and drafting Pant in as a specialist batsman?
Pant's wicketkeeping is a work in progress. He was found wanting when the ball was moving in England and also when it was turning and bouncing in Rajkot. There are technical flaws and it's only fair to assume that he's working on them, for there was a marked improvement in his glovework between the tenth and 11th seasons of the IPL.
There's also the matter of dealing with the sudden change in the level of the game when you move up to international cricket. We give allowance to batsmen and bowlers for it but we seldom talk about it in the context of keepers. Pant was doing a fine job for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy, but keeping to R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on a turning pitch is a challenge he hadn't previously faced.
Kuldeep a viable option in Australia?
Seven of the top ten T20I bowlers and four of the top ten ODI bowlers are legspinners. Kuldeep (No. 3 in ODIs) is not just another wristspinner; he's a left-arm wristspinner, a variety that's rare to find. He has got control (doesn't bowl too many boundary balls), slowness in the air, and a length so full that he seldom allows batsmen to work him off the back foot.
These skills, along with the fact that most modern-day batsmen struggle to read the spin from his hand, make it tempting to play Kuldeep in the longest format as well. While fingerspinners do well with the SG and Dukes balls, they tend to struggle with the old Kookaburra. The lack of a pronounced seam makes it difficult for them to get purchase off the surface, and that's why India have started investing in Kuldeep's craft. Giving him extended spells in Rajkot was part of India's plan of hoping to have him ready for the Australia tour. The fact that wristspinners tend to do a little better than fingerspinners on hard and bouncy Australian pitches isn't lost on the team management.
While there's a lot going for Kuldeep, he needs to focus more on his speed. He is at his best when batsmen are on the offensive, for that's when they are forced to either use their feet to create momentum or play across the line to generate the power required to hit big shots. When there's no such compulsion to score, Kuldeep's lack of speed works against him because even if batsmen don't read the ball from his hand, his line of attack reveals his plans: anything pitching around the leg-stump line has to be a wrong'un and the ones pitching outside off are mostly orthodox left-arm wristspin. And if the batsman isn't forced to generate pace, the slowness off the surface gives him enough time to adjust even if he decides to read the delivery off the pitch.
For a bowler, the non-bowling front arm initiates the action and the bowling arm reacts to the outcome of its movements. Kuldeep's non-bowling arm falls away and takes away momentum from the bowling arm, which is forced to generate the pace on its own. My interactions with Kuldeep suggest that he's aware of this problem and is working towards fixing it. The sooner he gets it right, the better it is for him and the team, for he might be in a position to be India's second spinner in Australia.