In Rishabh Pant's defiance lies his defence

Was the wicketkeeper-batter's bold approach in the WTC final appropriate?

Nagraj Gollapudi
Just before he entered the Indian dressing room on Wednesday afternoon, Rishabh Pant punched the thick wooden door hard with his bare-knuckled right fist.
Pant had just got out attempting to slog Trent Boult, getting a top-edge that flew high to backward point. Henry Nicholls, running backwards, took the catch of the final to silence the Indian fans in the crowd at the Rose Bowl. The magnificent catch, one of the turning points of the final, didn't get as much attention as the shot that Pant played. The question still being asked is: was Pant's bold approach appropriate?
Pant himself was angry. As he charged Boult and the ball flew towards Nicholls, he would have known he had made a mistake. However, ever since he had arrived at the crease early in the first session after Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara fell in quick succession, Pant had been walking the high wire. Yet, it was only those outside who had their hearts in their mouths. For the stockily built Pant, who India's bowling coach Bharat Arun describes as a "pocket dynamo", his various advances towards the bowler were calculated acts of blunting the opposition attack.
Pant's plan and instinct was to play every ball. At times it backfired. Off the ninth ball he faced, Kyle Jamieson pitched a delivery on length with a scrambled seam. Jamieson had induced edges and lbws with similar deliveries and lengths, which was on the fullish side. Pant attempted a push to the off side away from his body. The outside edge flew straight to second slip where Tim Southee made a mess of an easy catch. Pant was on 5. India were 82 for 4.
The Indian fans celebrated the drop. Southee banged the turf. Jamieson walked away, doing well to hide any emotions towards his senior team-mate, who had now dropped not one but two catches in the match. Dale Steyn, one of ESPNcricinfo's experts for this Test, tweeted wondering whether Southee had dropped the WTC mace.
Pant seemed unmoved. As Jamieson tested Ajinkya Rahane with short stuff, at the other end Pant was doing mock drills: ducking, swaying, hooking, pulling, ramping.
Then it was Southee's turn with the ball again. A delivery before the first hour into the morning, Southee swung one into Pant, who lunged forward toward the off stump. If you freeze the replay at that point, you can see Pant's front toe, the right one, pointing towards cover - as if he was going to drive it square on the off side; instead with a loose left leg and meaty wrists, he flicked the ball to the right of mid-on for a boundary. Even Rahane was caught by surprise as he had to quickly move out of the way.
When Neil Wagner replaced Southee, Pant charged him the third ball of the over, to slap a firm four. Next ball, he quickly moved into position to perfectly defend it under his eyeline, and exchanged a cool stare with the left-arm quick. Both men would engage in fencing duel.
Pant jumped out of his crease again for a streaky outside edge against an away swinging delivery that flew to the right of gully for four. Wagner had a curious smirk. Next delivery, slightly fuller, again an away swinger, Pant charged and this time missed. Rahane walked up to Pant. From afar, Pant seemed to indicate to his vice-captain that if he stayed in the crease, there was a greater danger of the ball taking the outside edge.
Next over Rahane was gone. India just ahead by just 77 runs, with 25 minutes to lunch. What would Pant do now? He jumped once again and went for an almighty heave against Wagner and missed completely. Wagner scratched his chin with an expression that said: 'What the hell?' Was it rash? Crazy? Pant might tell you: it was not an act of defiance. It was his instrument of defence.
Immediately into the second session, Wagner went round the stumps to unleash his main weapon - the short ball. Six men were in position on the leg side: short leg, backward short leg, midwicket, deep square leg and two fine legs. Every time Wagner banged in short Pant pulled him - both on the front foot and the back foot. And he was pulling these balls into the ground.
One particular stroke showed how well Pant had understood the pitch and the bowler's plan: he reverse swatted Wagner for a single to third man with such disdain as if he was shooing a fly.
Pitted against the meditative batting of Kane Williamson and Kohli in the first innings, it is easy to be critical of Pant's bating on Wednesday. Anarchic it might have seemed from outside, but Pant actually used his natural game to play to the situation. He was doing exactly what Kohli professed after the defeat: taking risks but in a calculated fashion. And he had to take risks. Both he and Ravindra Jadeja had battled hard to survive the first hour after lunch. Then Jadeja succumbed to sustained pressure. India's tail rarely wags. Pant did not have too many options, because otherwise there was every danger that India would end up with a far lesser lead. Recent evidence suggests the same. In the WTC, India have been bowled out 19 times. Only on four of those 19 occasions has the team batted more than 10 overs and added more than 50 runs after losing the seventh wicket.
Kohli himself was cautious about making too much of Pant's final shot on Wednesday. The Indian captain backed Pant, saying he was an "expressive" batter and India didn't want him to "lose his positivity or his optimism in changing the situation for the team", because that is his USP. "It's up to him to understand whether it was an error of judgement and rectify it moving forward because he has a long career with the Indian team, and certainly someone who could be a match maker for India on consistently many occasions in the future," Kohli said at the post-match media briefing.
This is not the first time Pant has played one stroke too many. It will not be the last time. The frustration from outside is because he himself raised the bar with his heroics in Australia, followed by the home series against England where he dug his heels in initially and then seized the momentum. He nearly did the same in Southampton, albeit in a different manner. Without his innings India potentially might have lost the battle well before lunch.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo