He is not even one year into Test cricket, but already Rishabh Pant is the most misunderstood current India cricketer. He is playing the wrong format for starters, that too almost by accident. It is his time spent in the other formats, where people tend to misunderstand his batting.
Pant is unlike any other Indian batsman before him. He truly is from the next generation of batting. He has a range of shots that Indian batsmen are discouraged from even dreaming about. He looks to hit in the middle overs in both shorter formats. He looks to hit big from ball one of both formats. He hits to all parts of the ground. He takes high risks. He plays not for the average but for the thrill, for the quick runs, for what the team needs. Yet he is kept away from those sides because he plays what is conventionally thought of as immature cricket. Getting out playing a reverse lap against a fast bowler is considered worse than prodding along and letting the asking rate climb.
Then an accident happened when Pant looked set for an idle summer at home. Wriddhiman Saha's injury was poorly handled, and he ended up being ruled out for a year. The selectors were caught unawares as this came to them only days before the Test selection for the tour of England. Still not considered good enough to play international limited-overs cricket, Pant was not even the next in line for longer formats. India A's four-day side on the shadow tour of England had KS Bharat as the wicketkeeper.
Bharat was being groomed as Saha's successor until emergency struck and India didn't want to send someone who didn't have the experience of the spotlights to England. So Pant was quickly drafted into the A side, and two failures from Dinesh Karthik later, he was keeping in the most difficult land to keep wicket against seam.
Agarkar: No need to worry about Pant's wicketkeeping right now
Sanjay Manjrekar, Ajit Agarkar and Damien Martyn discuss Rishabh Pant's batting and wicketkeeping skills
It has been an extremely tough initiation for Pant. His footwork was not up to it for the late movement in England. His batting was soon found out to be either six or block. Against good bowling in testing conditions, he didn't seem to have a shot to get off the strike. By their own admission, India had thrown a kid into the deep end, and he was learning to swim right in front of our eyes. His byes were talked about more than his runs. Highlight reels were being cut from his byes. Often the byes were higher were his runs. He was dropping catches. He scored the hundred at The Oval, but it was when England hardly bowled their main bowlers for a majority of the final day, and once saving the Test became a distinct possibility Pant went back to a six-or-block game and got out.
What Pant did bring was great attitude. He was not going to be a victim. He was going to find a way. He was not embarrassed even though the very nature of a wicket-keeping job is its ruthlessness if you are not up for it. He would be on the ground having conceded another set of byes, but he would do a kip-up to get back up on his feet. He is a gymnast, but also possibly a fan of Shawn Michaels, the professional wrestler. He was enjoying his time in the sun. He was a 20-year-old kid calling all his seniors by their name and without a title next to it, another rarity in Indian cricket and, in fact, in India. It surprised Sunil Gavaskar, who has seen Indian cricket closer than most.
Where did Pant get all this confidence from? From his game, evidently. He had come this far based on his game, he was not going to change it, or his own person. His spirit and positivity made him a favourite in the team.
Over in Australia he found himself in the spotlight again. He scored streaky 20s but Nathan Lyon had a grip on him with catches flying out to the men in the deep. Wicket-keeping remained a difficult job with pitches in Perth and Melbourne displaying uneven bounce. Pant's feet movement still needs work but he kept throwing himself around to keep the byes count low. Important catches went down. He revealed himself to not be the most natural catcher in front of slip.
The broadcaster turned Pant into a wind-up toy, letting him do their job of providing entertainment and insights. All through the series, especially the first three Tests, Pant was just a source of amusement. He was setting records for most dismissals, but he was struggling with the really difficult chances. It would have been easy to say 'I was not ready for this, and I should be playing the format that I am more suited to right now', but Pant kept turning up with a smile, with the fitness, with a kip-up to get off his back. He has never been down on himself, and if the wicketkeeper is a barometer of a team's spirits, India's have been pretty high.
Without meaning to, the selectors, the team, the broadcasters have all set Pant up to fail by putting him in a format he is not yet ready for, by asking him to go for a win at The Oval when it was not possible, by turning up the stumps mic for dubious reasons. Pant has gone through all that with a smile. Which is why not one soul will grudge him day two of the SCG Test.
No century is easy, but it will be fair to say Pant's second, 159 not out at a strike rate of 84, which buried Australia under a mountain of runs, was not the toughest of five scored by Indian batsmen on this tour. At the press conference after that hundred, he said what you hear of him on the stump mic is just him, that he is not conscious of being heard in the living rooms. If he is cheeky, that's him. If he doesn't swear or snarl, that's him. And the chatter is important for him to stay alert and switched on.
Pant was asked how he manages to stay positive about everything. "As a wicketkeeper, we look forward to only one thing - to be positive because this is not a one-ball game," he said. "You have to be on the field till you get the opposition out, so you have to be positive because if the next chance comes and you don't grab that, your morale will go down even more I guess."
Pant must know his keeping and his batting need a lot of work to be a bankable Test player, but he is going for all the tough chances at the moment; some easy ones are usually around the corner when you do that.