Rishabh Pant runs down at Mujeeb Ur Rahman, a bowler with variations ranging from the carrom ball to the offbreak to the legbreak to the wrong'un. He thinks he has picked the legbreak and tries to go over the leg side, but it turns out to be the wrong'un, which he ends up slicing to cover. This is after he has hit the Kings XI Punjab's then gun bowler Andrew Tye for four, six and four in the previous over, and hit the first ball of this Mujeeb over for four more.
The three overs for which Pant has been in the middle have brought 33 runs, to inject some life into a Delhi Daredevils innings that was limping at 77 for 2 after ten overs. His intent and eagerness to hit out are later proved right, when the Kings XI chase down the target easily. Pant knows the Daredevils are headed to a below-par total, but gets out trying to correct that course. For 28 off 13. How has he fared? Has he failed?
A big part of cricket is failure and how you deal with it. In an interview to the Cricket Monthly three years ago, Stephen Fleming, coach of a pretty successful franchise, said helping players deal with insecurity about failure was a significant part of his job: "It is very hard to convince a player that if he is going at [a strike rate of] 190 but averaging 10 and he comes in with four balls to go, [that] he is an asset. It is [about] convincing guys that they are doing their roles to maximum. If someone is batting at a run a ball for 20 balls and averaging 50 at the end of the IPL, it is not great."
That is a conflict inherent in cricket: the pursuit of individual goals in a team sport. You want the team to win, but you also want to make runs to keep your place in the side. It is quite telling that as recently as 2017, a coach who had worked with some of the biggest names in T20 felt that players still rated themselves by the traditional metric of the batting average. It naturally follows that in trying to keep that average high, in trying to retain their place, batsmen run the risk of being at odds with the team's goals.
This gets all the more vexing if you don't bat in the top three. There is no time to make up for slow starts. Your striking efficiency has to be high: there are no field restrictions in place to take your shanks and mishits over the 30-yard line and rolling into the fence. The pitch has probably slowed. It is easier for limited batsmen to be shut down, with fewer boundary options because of the spread-out fields and the fact that the opposition's best spinners are bowling.
It is no wonder everybody wants to bat in the top order, where more is expected of you but you have the time and the freedom to go about your innings. Some ordinary T20 batsmen have found their way into top-ten lists for aggregate runs or high averages simply because they have the luxury of batting in the top order. Teams have to strike a balance between the old notion of letting their best batsmen play the most deliveries and having their best batsmen bat in the most challenging phases of an innings.
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Batting outside the top three requires a mix of high skill and a new attitude. That's why the likes of Andre Russell and Kieron Pollard are so highly valued as T20 players. That's why West Indies have been such a successful international T20 side.
India have struggled to manage this attitudinal shift and it has hurt them at world events.
In the IPL, for example, all of their high performers bat in the top order. They are selected for India based on traditional metrics, find the top order is jam-packed, and are then forced to become middle-order batsmen at the international level. The Dinesh Karthiks of the world hardly get a run. Can you blame them, then, for worrying about their average?
Around the time that Fleming spoke about the need for rethinking what batting success and failure in T20 meant, Pant was finding his feet in the IPL. At the time he was in his second IPL year. Since the start of that season, no one in the IPL has scored more runs than him. The next eight batsmen on the list predominantly bat in the top three. None of them is close to his strike rate of 168 in that period. And yet, he has averaged 38. He is one of only three players to have maintained the holy-grail double of an average of 30 or more and a strike rate of 150 or above through a career of 50 innings or more. AB de Villiers just misses out making that list.
Pant has no apparent weakness against any kind of bowling. His average and strike rate in this three-year period against pace and spin are 39 and 177, and 42 and 157. Wristspin is the biggest weapon deployed by teams in the middle over, but he averages 56 and strikes at 160 against it. Offspin, which goes away from him, goes at 38 and 151. Left-arm pace, another point of difference that every team seeks, draws an average of 36 and a strike rate of 201. Hyderabad is the only IPL venue and the Kings XI Punjab the only team to have kept him under a strike rate of 150.
Among the big-name international bowlers, only Jasprit Bumrah and Kuldeep Yadav can claim to have the wood over him. Rashid Khan, Imran Tahir, Jofra Archer and Sunil Narine have all struggled to contain him: the lowest he averages against any of these four bowlers is 32 (Tahir); his lowest strike rate against them is 146 (Khan). When setting targets, which is considered to be more difficult, his average and strike rate are 44 and 175; when chasing, they are 37 and 161.
There are many reasons why Pant is rated so highly. When they should have been playing the IPL this Indian summer, the players were forced to sit at home because of the pandemic. Some of them spent time chatting to each other on video on Instagram. Apropos of nothing, some of these conversations invariably turn to Pant.
Mohammed Shami tells Irfan Pathan, full of awe, that the day Pant gets confidence at international level, he will "explode". "The way the ball travels off his bat…"
Rashid Khan tells Yuzvendra Chahal of the Under-19 days when Pant hit an Afghanistan left-arm spinner for three consecutive sixes and then got dropped off the fourth ball. The bowler, Khan says, went down on his haunches, held his head in his hands and screamed, to the amusement of his team-mates, "Who will save us from him now?" That day Pant scored 118 off 98; the rest of Indian team managed 148, Afghanistan were bowled out for 162.
Chahal's response to that anecdote expresses the same Shami-like awe: "If your bowling is not up to a certain level, he changes your level." Khan says it is difficult to bowl to him because you can't shut him off; he hits every shot in every area. No surprise that Khan would rather bowl to Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma.
In another chat, Suresh Raina tells Chahal that watching Pant gives you that rare pure joy you got from watching Yuvraj Singh or Virender Sehwag or Sachin Tendulkar at their best, dominating bowlers.
The ball travels faster off his bat, he has all the shots, he dominates bowlers - all that is there, but what really sets Pant apart is his willingness to bat at a T20 tempo. He is arguably a first in India: a T20 batsman with a T20 attitude. He doesn't want to build long innings at the expense of making the most of those 20 overs. It is all the more incredible that he doesn't despite having grown up playing as an opener who liked to get a sighter before he began hitting out. He opened for India in U-19 cricket, and even for Delhi in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
Pant has unlearnt that, and starts quickly. He attempts, and hits, a lot of boundaries. Only two batsmen - Narine, a powerplay pinch-hitter, and Russell, the GOAT hitter - take fewer balls to hit a boundary on average than Pant's 4.14. Outside the powerplay, only Russell does better.
Pant is fifth on the list of batsmen with the highest strike rates over their first ten balls. The ones ahead of him are Narine and Russell again, followed by Hardik Pandya and Jos Buttler.
ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats are metrics that aim to contextualise statistics by assessing players' performances relative to how others fared in those same conditions, the record of the opponent, and also taking into account the phase of the game. In a way, they measure the impact of the cold runs you see on the scorecard.
Over the last three years, among those who have scored a total of at least 500 runs in the IPL, only Russell and Narine have a better smart strike rate than Pant's 189, which is a 12.5% increase on his absolute strike rate. The smart strike rates of other India international batsmen over this period - KL Rahul, Kohli, Sharma among them - is lower than their absolute strike rate; Pandya is an exception. These batsmen rely on a special performance from somebody else to be able to put on a par score on the board; Pant puts in those special performances day in and day out.
He has consistently scored more runs in tougher phases of the game at a much higher strike rate than other batsmen involved in those matches, and he still has more aggregate runs than others. Only Russell and Narine, who have the licence, have gone faster than Pant. It could be argued that even Pant has the licence a Kohli or Sharma might not have, but no other No. 4 or 5 matches up to him either. This is the result of a liberated mind that has reassessed the definitions of success and failure, and of a set of skills that enables him to achieve some sort of consistency in the most difficult phase of the game.
And yet, in international cricket, the same liberated mind seems muddled. There sometimes are periods of quiet, and then a big shot to bring about his downfall. It is as though Pant is trying to be someone he isn't, and then gets out trying to rediscover himself.
As a result, Pant is established only in half a format: Tests outside Asia. After being in and out of India's limited-overs teams, he has lost his place to KL Rahul, which must be frustrating now that MS Dhoni has finally announced his international retirement. Rahul has shown tremendous skill batting in the difficult middle order in ODIs, but it need not be Pant or Rahul. Imagine both Pant with his potential unlocked and Rahul in current form in India's middle order.
In a way, Pant did not lose out to Rahul in New Zealand early this year, but variously to Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey and Shivam Dube. As man managers, India's selectors, captain and coaches should be concerned they have not been able to properly use someone who, for three years now, has arguably been among the best three or four middle-order batsmen in franchise cricket, despite playing in only one league. He also is the left-hand batsman that India so badly need in their limited-overs middle orders.
That is the comfort zone, it is argued, that Pant performs in. He has not found his comfort zone in international cricket, where he doesn't get 14 straight games and has to repeatedly prove himself all over again to the team management. Nor is there a way he can know his role in this India set-up with the clarity he has at the Capitals. One day he is dropped from the World Cup, another he is batting in the third over of a World Cup semi-final.
It is an environment so competitive that the captain tells young players they will get "five chances to prove themselves". The coach openly talks of how Pant has let the team down with his shot selection.
Gautam Gambhir, an acclaimed IPL and occasional India captain, has no sympathy for Pant. He tells ESPNcricinfo that at the IPL, unlike at international levels, you can target lesser bowlers, and nor do you have to deal with scrutiny or the possibility of being dropped. At international level, echoing the team management's sentiment, Gambhir says Pant simply has to finish games.
"International cricket is not about grooming a player, it is about delivering," he says. "If you have to groom a player, there is first-class cricket. There are so many other people in the queue waiting to make a comeback or a debut. So you have got to decide how many games you want to give a certain player. You can't keep playing international cricket on talent."
To be fair to the team management, Pant got 24 straight T20I matches for India over 14 months starting November 2018. His median entry point is the 11th over, which Mohammad Kaif and Ricky Ponting of the Capitals think is the ideal time for him to start his innings. Yet he has averaged 20 at a strike rate of 125 in these 21 innings.
So Pant finds himself out of the India set-up with three World Cups in the next three years. In these uncertain times, nobody can count on being able to play any international cricket to make a case for selection, which makes the IPL more important. And Rahul is in no mind of giving up the big gloves - though he has Nicholas Pooran, arguably a better wicketkeeper, in his side.
Pant is up against it, and also out of his comfort zone slightly when it comes to the conditions. The grammar of T20 cricket in the UAE is slightly different than in India. In the IPL overall, a boundary is hit every 5.63 balls; it is once in eight balls in Abu Dhabi in T20s since the start of 2017, once in seven in Dubai, and six in Sharjah. The average scoring rates are accordingly lower.
Pant will have to be even more efficient with his hitting if he wants to continue playing a role similar to the one he has played in the last three editions of the IPL. If he changes his approach a little to reflect the conditions, he will be doing what India have been asking him to do: bat according to the conditions. Either way, if he succeeds for a fourth IPL in a row, he will have answered a lot of questions his patchy international career has raised.