Match Analysis

The Pant playbook: There's no room for boring

His 88-ball 91 was a reminder that his future knocks, too, would mostly be rollicking rides

Varun Shetty
Varun Shetty
"Run up, put it on the spot, be metronomic, and be almost deadly boring."
This was Graeme Swann's advice to Jack Leach, who is on his maiden tour to India. It's what Swann did when England won 2-1 in 2012-13, and so did India's spinners for the first two days of this Test.
None of them had to contend with Rishabh Pant, who simply doesn't do boring. And we better get used to it.
This much is evident when Pant keeps wicket - he sings Hindi versions of the Spiderman theme song, coos and cackles when teams try to pinch runs from the infield, and gets himself babysitting gigs. In this Test, his attempts to elicit noise from close-in fielders were so constant, you almost wonder if he was just looking for a conversation.
And then, there's his batting, as Leach found out for the first time in Test cricket. The plan was a no-brainer for England's left-arm spinner - there's a rough outside the left-hander's off stump, and he was looking to hit it. At 73 for 4, India were 505 behind, and Pant had kept for two straight days as India played a patient, conservative game. There was no room for a metronome in his life on Sunday.
India hadn't hit a boundary for nearly 15 overs when Pant came in; half an hour later, Pant had two fours against Archer and four sixes off Leach, straight out of the rough.
There are two things to consider about Pant's innings. One, that his strategy was probably out of Ben Stokes' playbook on Saturday. The England left-hander counter-punched through the early part of day two against Shahbaz Nadeem, predominantly using sweeps to unsettle the India left-arm spinner who was also looking to find the rough through a difficult spell. As one of the leading attacking batsmen in the world, Stokes did an expert job of executing that plan, explaining that he decided he would rather be out caught in the deep - as he was - than pushing at one to be taken at short leg. In both, the number of runs scored, and the way their respective innings ended, Pant and Stokes played identical innings.
Why that may not be immediately apparent, is point number two: Pant loves to hit sixes, and is very good at it. That takes attention away from the solidity he showed against the other bowlers. Understandably, there was concern about his approach from fans and experts alike, as he went about his six-hitting streak. Some of his sixes only just cleared the fielders on the rope, and his ramp past leg slip during Leach's second spell wasn't what would be called a percentage shot - one where the risk and reward aren't disparate.
But, to reiterate, he is really good at hammering sixes. There was as much calculation in going after Leach as there was at being watchful against Bess at the other end. Pant taking on a left-arm spinner is almost always the best option: in 54 balls against left-arm spin in Test cricket, he hits a four or a six every 5.4 balls and is yet to be dismissed. Against right-arm spinners, whom he has faced considerably more (517 balls), that boundary rate is one every 11 balls and he has been out 11 times in 22 innings. At the press conference at the end of the day, Cheteshwar Pujara said that it's probably never in Pant's best interests to be defensive against spin.
The audacity of his attacking game has often belied a rather intelligent batsman in his short career. On a turning pitch, nearly everything he did until he eventually fell to Bess' offspin was calculative. Based on the trouble Leach caused Washington Sundar later in the day, it's safe to say that Pant's attack against him almost single-handedly delayed one of England's frontline threats. It also helped Pujara immediately at the other end, as depicted in these pitchmaps below from an early point in their partnership.
The word "intent" can almost take on parody status in Indian cricket for the range of conversation it covers. It fuels debates, starts existential battles, and can be contorted to fit pretty much any discussion - it showed up during 36 all out and also during the results in Sydney and Brisbane, for example. So what is it, really?
This piece from India's early 2020 tour to New Zealand captures the essence: "it's about getting past the fear of survival, no matter what the conditions are, and figuring out how best to score runs and get the game moving along."
With Pant growing alongside this diktat, and looking more and more like he will be one of India's regulars over the next few years, it is perhaps time for those of us watching from outside to embrace what's coming: the rollicking rides, as well as how abruptly they could end. In the dressing room, it's something they're already working on.
"The communication is to try and make him understand which are the shots he can play, and there are some shots he needs to avoid. I can't be specific about the shots, but there's a clear communication with him that there are some shots he needs to avoid," said Pujara at the end of third day's play. "Some shots he can continue playing if they're in his range. And there are times when he also has to understand, and even the coaching staff always communicates, that he has to put the team first and be a little sensible. And he has done that most of the time.
"There are times when he gets out and it looks ugly. But [...] he has a bright future. He will learn that there are times when he can be more patient and build another partnership with whoever is there at the crease, because he's capable of putting the team first and at the same time put up a decent total. Whenever he bats long, we always end up putting a big total. I'm sure he'll realise that."
Or perhaps he'll just get bored of the fact that he has been out in the nineties thrice at home, and four times overall.

Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo