July 10, 2019, Old Trafford. It's the second day of the rain-hit World Cup semi-final between India and New Zealand. Trent Boult has just pinned Virat Kohli lbw with a sharp inswinger in a chase of 240. Enter Rishabh Pant. He isn't supposed to be here in the first place, but a toe injury to the designated No.4 Vijay Shankar puts Pant in the hot seat. The top three - KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, and Kohli himself - are all out for 1 each as Boult and Matt Henry find movement in the air and off the seam as well.
Pant largely plays close to his body and weathers incisive bursts from the seamers, but once left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner has him playing out four successive dots, he loses patience, aims a big slog-sweep over the long leg-side boundary, only to hole out to Colin de Grandhomme at deep midwicket. The manner of his dismissal frustrates his captain Kohli, who then walks towards the balcony to chat with coach Ravi Shastri.
Pant's life after the World Cup began in similar fashion in Lauderhill: in the first T20I on an incredibly two-paced pitch, he ventured another hoick across the line and against Sunil Narine's break only to hole out to deep square leg for a golden duck. His wicket triggered a late slide in India's small chase of 96, but allrounders Ravindra Jadeja and Washington Sundar closed out the game.
Then, in the second game at the same venue on the next day, Pant was bounced out by Oshane Thomas for 4. He was in a dilemma whether to slash it over backward point or ramp it fine over the keeper. Ultimately, he did a bit of this, a bit of that, and simply glided the ball into the lap of deep third man.
Pant's USP is his muscle - he has the special ability to smash sixes despite contorting his body into weird shapes - but you can't always hit your way out of trouble. Maybe you can in domestic cricket and the IPL, where every attack has a weak link or two. But, on Wednesday at the Providence, Pant married brawn with brains against a challenging attack to provide a glimpse into the future. He not only showed he could build an innings, but also finish it off in fuss-free fashion - key traits expected of a No.4 even in ODI cricket.
"For the first two games, he was disappointed that he didn't get any runs," Kohli said of Pant after the third T20I in Guyana. "He was playing really well, hitting the ball really well, but that's how T20 cricket goes. Sometimes you don't have the rub of the green. But today he made sure he applied himself and batted to his skills and backed himself to hit the big shots when required and really played with the tempo of the innings.
"He's got a lot of skill and talent. [But] it's about winning and finishing games like these and gaining confidence, which he wants to do as well. It's about giving him a bit more space to ease himself into international cricket and not putting too much pressure because of the way he's played in the IPL."
India were reduced to 27 for 2 in the fifth over in pursuit of 147 on Tuesday. When Thomas banged one short and outside off in the next over, Pant's judgement wasn't scrambled this time and he scythed a cut over backward point for four.
At the other end, Narine was extracting considerable turn, and Pant restrained himself from hitting against it, tempering his naturally free-scoring approach. When the offspinner dropped one fractionally short and outside off, Pant leant back, opened the face of his bat so very late and carved the ball to the right of backward point for four.
Having sussed out the conditions, Pant just saw off Narine and steadily moved to 22 off 23 balls. However, once Narine was swapped out of the attack, Pant lined up the change bowlers Keemo Paul and Carlos Brathwaite. But, even then, he shelved his favourite leg-side swipe and took the risk-free option of hitting down the ground. He smoked 43 off his last 19 balls, including four sixes of which three were launched in the arc between long-off and extra-cover.
Sure, Kohli played some sparkling shots in a 106-run stand and eased the pressure off Pant, but the 21-year old provided enough signs that he has the game and gears to end India's endless search for a reliable No.4 in ODI cricket.
When Hardik Pandya made his foray into international cricket, he was perceived as a six-hitter and hit-the-deck bowler. Since then, Pandya has learned on the job, showing the nous to construct an innings with the bat in addition to developing the knuckle ball and the offcutter.
"It's only about how you play different situations. Are you good enough to play when the score is 30 for 3, or 250 for 3? Are you good enough to bat when you go in first over or are you good enough to go in first ball after lunch? You have to learn to bat differently in different conditions, and if you can do that like Hardik is showing at the moment, those would be signs of a developing cricketer someone who can make consistent contributions and not someone who is a one-off, who can produce brilliance once in a while."
This was India A coach Rahul Dravid's assessment of Pandya in September 2017. About two years later, Pandya has established himself as a gun allrounder across formats and across conditions.
Can Pant emulate Pandya and establish himself as an all-weather limited-overs player? His next step towards that is the three-match ODI series against a West Indies attack that will be bolstered by the addition of Jason Holder and Kemar Roach.