Rishabh Pant has had the toughest possible initiation into international cricket. Nine months ago he was looking at an idle summer. Then Wriddhiman Saha got injured and Pant was thrown into the deep end before his time. His first consistent run has come in Tests: it came in Tests in England, the toughest place to keep wicket to quicks, and during a series that was very tough for batting. He has set records for byes, and also for dismissals. He has looked suspect at times, but he has scored hundreds in London and Sydney. He has been consistently in the spotlight, but he has taken the challenge on with a smile on his face.
What were your plans for the last summer?
Nothing special. I was in England playing for India A in the one-day matches. There the selectors put it in the back of my mind that I could get a call-up for the Tests. Wriddhi bhai [Saha] was injured, so they asked me to stay prepared and selected me for the four-day matches too.
When did you get to know you were selected?
It was the morning of our four-day match against England Lions. It was almost their main team. Alastair Cook, Chris Woakes, Sam Curran, Ollie Pope, Dawid Malan, they were all there. We were about to go out on the field - we had lost the toss and were fielding first. Just then Nannu pa [Sarandeep Singh, national selector] called me over. "Rishabh, come here for a minute." I went there. And he said, "You are selected." I said, "For what?" Maine kaha surety toh le loon." [I wanted to be sure before I let myself enjoy it.]
He said, your name is in the Test team. Oh mere ko jo khushi hui us time pe [Oh the joy I felt at that time…] The first thing I did was hug Nannu pa. Then I went to keep wicket, and what joy I kept wicket with that day.
After the day's play, the moment I got my phone back, the first thing I did was call my mother. She was very happy. Then I called Tarak sir [Tarak Sinha, Pant's coach in Delhi].
Your game is modern. It is aggressive, but the way you speak about it, it seems Test cricket means everything to you.
Always. Right from the start. Because at Sonnet Club [where Sinha coaches], merely an international player means nothing. He often says, "International player is nothing. Test player is the real player." It always stayed in my mind. I had played for India one year previously. But Tarak sir was like, "That's okay, that's no big deal. The day you play Test cricket, I will recognise you as a proper player." That's why after my mother, I called him up.
ESPN Shorts: The Paine-Pant banter series
Captains might be "temporary" but banter is permanent. Here's how Rishabh Pant and Tim Paine entertained us during the recently-concluded Test series
What did he say that day?
After a long time, he was happy that day. Generally he is very hard to please. Even if I score a hundred, he is never pleased. That was the day he was happy.
England is the most difficult place to keep wicket, and the quality of the bowlers was so high. Did you feel it was a big jump?
No. You face all these bowlers in the IPL. Domestic cricket has these same bowlers. Just that the ball moves a lot more in England. But that's okay, there's always a first time. But I can say that as a wicketkeeper, when I played India A matches and then against the Lions, I had a fair idea of what to expect. Also, these matches were played with the Dukes ball. And it is India A bowlers who go and bowl in Tests in the future. Unless you are a good bowler, you won't be in the India A side.
A lot of byes were conceded at the start. The odd catch went down. Did you ever feel you should have been eased in through the shorter formats and then progressed to Tests?
No. I didn't feel that, because if you see those byes, you will know whether 90% of those should be called byes or whatever…
Yes. People who saw the game live, England wicketkeeping coach Bruce French and Jos Buttler, both of them said they had never seen anyone keeping in England for the first time do so well. Yes, I conceded byes. Obviously it frustrated me. But if I am doing my best and I can't stop them, if the bowler himself is coming to apologise - I am conceding boundaries and he is saying sorry - then you feel…
Okay, I am not running away from it, I did miss the odd one here or there, but most of them were difficult to stop.
The number of byes was going up but so were the number of catches and stumpings. Test cricket is a long day - six and a half hours of keeping, the big screen is playing the byes often. How difficult is it to stay positive and not let it affect you?
That's the most difficult part. Especially in those conditions, and in your debut series. That pressure builds up in its own way, but as a wicketkeeper you must know this will go on. There will be byes, there will be catches that will go down, but what is important is what you do when the next chance arrives. Because there will always be a next catch. If you are not positive, if you are not in a good frame of mind, you can drop that next one too. To recover from your mistake, you have to stay positive. How you do it - as a player you should know that.
How did you learn to do that?
I always look at the positive side of things. Wicketkeeping is all about the feel. And I got a good feel about my wicketkeeping in England. So I didn't look too much at the scoreboard.
And the big screen? Did you see highlights packages on the big screen of all the byes?
Yes, but what I saw was this: I was taking two-three steps, and then diving full length. If the ball goes away even after that, I wasn't that unhappy about it.
So even at that time you were analysing yourself?
As a wicketkeeper, and as a youngster, if I don't learn, it will be very difficult. Always important to keep learning from your mistakes. I was analysing which balls I could have stopped, which I couldn't have.
Every observer, great former players, they were all impressed with your positivity. That you still enjoyed yourself, the way you used to get up, the kip-up…
All that comes natural to me.
Nothing to do with Shawn Michaels or professional wrestling?
There was never time to watch wrestling. Just watched cricket and played cricket. I did gymnastics for two-three years. This comes from there.
Did you do any technical work on your keeping after the England tour?
It is all natural. You have to keep improving, yes. Make little adjustments - where you stand, position of hands - but I didn't have to make any big changes.
Tell us more about your first runs in Test cricket.
I was nervous when I went out to bat. I was reminding myself to play according to the ball. I defended the first ball, but I saw what he [Adil Rashid] was trying to do. The second ball was a googly, and we Indian batsmen are good at reading spin. I read it from the hand, I felt like I could hit it, and I hit it.
There was this expectation long ago that you were going to be the X-factor in the Test side, but then there were some whispers about the way you were getting out. But you know your game the best, right? What is risk for someone else might not be risk for you. Did you have to fight that conception? Did you ever have to hear that you are irresponsible, that your attitude is not great?
Formats make all the difference. If you are playing days cricket and get out trying to hit a six, everybody knows and says it is irresponsible. But when it comes off, nobody says anything. The percentage is what matters. If you are getting out in ten matches but are getting the results in nine of them, that is important. If my percentage of results is high, I only focus on my process. And if something is working for me, it might not work for someone else. Similarly if something is working for someone else, it might not always help me.
And you are not playing these outrageous shots straight in matches. You have practised them.
Everything. Right from childhood. It feels like all my life I have played only cricket. By now, at least this much I know: how to play in what situation. Sometimes you have to curb your instincts, that is also important. At the end of the day, you have to score runs. Can't play just to survive.
And you bat a lot with the tail.
Yes, and at that time you have two options: I can come back not out or I can go for the team goals. Everybody likes personal glory to an extent but team goals are always more important.
You said you need to curb your instincts at times. Can you give examples of when you might have done so in Test cricket?
During that hundred in England [at The Oval], we were too far behind. You had to be careful to pick what balls you hit. In England, if you give yourself some time, you can score runs. So I was very selective at the start of the innings. Once I got used to the conditions, the runs came.
But once you got close to the end, and you had a break to think about the situation, what was the thinking in the final session?
In the final session we were just thinking about how we can chase the total down. When I and Rahul bhai [KL Rahul] were batting, we were positive. The game plan was to play normal cricket, but then he got out, and then I got out…
When he got out, did you feel maybe you should try to save the Test?
Right now in this Indian team, we only play to win. Whatever the match, whatever the situation, every player, from No. 1 to 11, only thinks about how he can win the match for India. That is the most important thing for us. That we have to win it for India.
What did Virat Kohli say to you before that fifth day?
He said it is not compulsory that you attain experience after 100 Tests. Even in your second Test, you can do what nobody has ever done.
In Australia, your commentary from behind the wicket was a side track by itself. Were you aware that was happening and were you ever circumspect that you might be caught saying something that could land you in trouble?
Yeah, I was aware, but there is no way I could land in trouble. I never abused anybody. It was normal, hard, competitive Test cricket. You keep saying those things because you want to play with the batsman's concentration. It was good banter. Personally I never felt that I crossed any line.
Was the "banter" from Australia as good-natured as everybody thought it was?
See, we don't go there to make the other team win the match. If you want to win it for your team, then [do] whatever it takes. They were also doing the same. Whoever executes the plans better wins.
And you have the experience to know what to say and where the line is being crossed.
Yes. I behave the way I usually do. There is no chance I will cross the line because I have never done so.
What do you feel about stump mics, though? Do you feel keeping them up all the time intrudes into your personal space, and in a way, it is setting cricketers up to fail?
I am no one to decide. But what I will say is, you won't see this much banter all the time. There is time in Test cricket. You won't see it this much in ODIs and T20s. This is good competition. Good competition is important for Test cricket. But I can't say whether stump mics should be kept up or not.
You don't feel your personal workspace is being intruded?
I don't see it that way. The match is on. Even if the mic is off, you can lip-read what is being said. I don't feel the stump mics make that much of a difference.
Where has your batting gone in your time in Test cricket?
I just focus on my processes. I don't see whether I am doing well or badly. Because results obviously matter, but at the end of the day, your processes are important. Whatever processes have brought me here, I need to focus on that. On my work ethic, on how much time I devote to wicketkeeping process, what I need to do before matches.
What has been the most satisfying part of your time in Test cricket?
That my processes are working. That I can trust my game.
Coming to this IPL - Delhi has invested trust in you. How do you see this Delhi Capitals team shaping up?
There have been quite a few changes. The support staff has changed, players have changed, the name has changed. I feel we can do something different this time. At the start of the season we are only focusing on how we can win the trophy.
You have a good core of youngsters in your side: you, Shreyas Iyer, Prithvi Shaw… Now there is added experience of someone like Shikhar Dhawan.
The balance is quite good. Shikhi bhai is there, Ishant [Sharma] is there. We have got Colin Ingram. The mix of youth and experience will help.