Twice in the space of five months, South Africa have toured India for white-ball series. In that short span of time, Ishan Kishan
has gone on a rollercoaster ride.
In the five-match T20I series in June, Kishan was the highest run-getter
on either side, with 206 runs at an average of 41.20 and a strike rate of 150.36. Midway through the series, Kishan had become the top-ranked India batter in the ICC T20I rankings, entering the top ten
for the first time in his career.
The T20 World Cup was still a few months away, but Kishan seemed to have made a solid case for selection as India's back-up opener.
By the time South Africa returned to India in late September, Kishan was no longer part of the T20I squad, with all the first-choice players back in action, and he had not found a place in the T20 World Cup squad - not even among the reserves.
He was part of the ODI squad, but as much as this was a privilege and opportunity like every other international series, it was also a reminder of his place in India's talent pool. The players in the World Cup squad had all flown to Perth
to prepare for the tournament.
Fifty-over cricket is entirely different to T20, and drawing conclusions about a player's skillset and methods in one format based on performances in the other is dubious. But it can be useful sometimes, in a crude kind of way. At the 20-over mark of India's chase in the second ODI
in Ranchi, for instance, you could sort of see why India had left Kishan out of their T20 World Cup squad.
Kishan was batting on 29 off 45 balls at that point. He had faced 37 balls from South Africa's fast bowlers, and had scored 19 runs off them. Against their spinners, he had scored 10 off 8. During the next over, the 21st, Kishan clubbed Keshav Maharaj for two big sixes over the leg side, taking his spin tally to 23 off 12.
This was in keeping with his T20I numbers. Of the eight India batters who have faced at least 50 balls from both types of bowlers in T20Is this year, Kishan has the lowest strike rate against pace (122.93) and the fourth best against spin (144.64).
The player he was competing directly with for a World Cup spot, Rishabh Pant
, is the same kind of player - left-hand batter, wicketkeeper, capable of opening or batting in the middle order - but with diametrically opposing strengths and weaknesses. Pant has been the slowest-scoring member of this core batting group against spin (strike rate of 105.40) and the fourth quickest against pace (150.28).
In Australia, where the T20 World Cup will be played, batters are probably going to face a lot more pace than spin, and spinners are probably not going to get a whole lot of help from the pitches. Pant also has more international experience than Kishan in general, and more experience of Australian conditions.
Fifty-overs cricket also asks more of top-order batters' defensive techniques, given that they need to survive for significantly longer to be useful to their teams. It also provides scope for a greater range of batting approaches to flourish.
Match-ups have gained unprecedented currency thanks to T20, but 50-overs cricket allows batters more space to wait for favourable match-ups and cash in on them. Kishan did just this on Sunday.
Maharaj had bowled only two balls to left-hand batters, out of a total of 66, during the T20I series. He had tied Kishan down brilliantly - dismissing him while conceding just four runs in 16 balls - in the first ODI
in Lucknow, where there had been plenty of grip and turn.
Ranchi was the first time on the tour that Maharaj had been asked to bowl to a left-hand batter for prolonged periods in largely batting-friendly conditions. This was a slow pitch too, so Maharaj had little room for error with his length. By the time he had completed his first three overs, Kishan had waited on the back foot and hit him for three sixes, all pulls and baseball-style slogs over midwicket.
ODI cricket allows batters to be selective like that - judge the conditions, pick the right balls to target, and wait for them to arrive.
Kishan and Shreyas Iyer
came together with India 48 for 2, needing 231 runs at a rate of just above five-and-a-half per over. At the 20-over mark, the required rate had climbed past 6, and Kishan had Maharaj in his sights.
"Their team had two left-arm spinners [Maharaj and Bjorn Fortuin], and as a leftie batsman my first job was to take a chance [against those bowlers] and transfer the pressure from my team onto their bowlers," Kishan said after the game. "We kept it simple.
"I've played a lot of matches in Ranchi, I know the wicket. Mostly the wicket tends to slow down in the second innings, but when we came here for our practice session, there was a lot of dew, so we felt the pitch may not change too much. When I played Maharaj's first over, I realised he wasn't getting that much help, and before the ball became old, I felt we'd need to take 2-3 chances, because sometimes when you attack, bowlers tend to deviate from their line and length, and that can give you more chances to hit boundaries."
Kishan bossed his match-up in clinical manner. And having taken time early on and grown used to the conditions - things that ODIs allow batters to do - he got into the kind of rhythm where he could transcend match-ups.
Anrich Nortje had last bowled to Kishan in the 20th over of India's innings. He had made Kishan sway hurriedly to get out of the way of two scorching bouncers, one of which had nearly knocked the batter off his feet.
When Nortje returned to bowl the 32nd over, Kishan was batting on 70 off 72 balls. The short ball from the quicks was now a scoring opportunity, as he had shown in the 29th over when he pulled Kagiso Rabada for an authoritative four, rolling his wrists over to keep the ball on the floor.
Nortje's short ball, however, is among the most potent in the game. Coming into this match, he had an average of 16.00 in ODIs while bowling short or short-of-good length balls, according to ESPNcricinfo's data. Since his debut in March 2019, no fast bowler with at least 10 wickets off these lengths had managed a better average than Nortje, with Jofra Archer just behind him at 16.45.
When Nortje banged the second ball of the 32nd over into the pitch, it seemed to arrive quicker than Kishan expected, skidding into his midriff area and leaving him cramped for room with no time to adjust. But sometimes, hand-eye coordination is enough, and Kishan, feet frozen and hips in an awkward, closed position, swatted the ball for a one-bounce four over midwicket.
Kishan was more than ready for the next ball, with front leg out of the way well in time, and landed his pull into a throng of dancing spectators beyond the leg-side boundary. Nortje, rattled, went full and straight next ball, and Kishan had his front leg out of the way again. Different length, same footwork, same sort of bat-swing, same result. Four, six, six.
By now a century was well within his sights, but it wasn't to be. The aerial pull off the left-arm spinner had been the bread and butter of his innings, but Kishan got his execution slightly wrong on 93, when he hit Fortuin straight to deep midwicket. But there were no regrets.
"I could have got those seven runs in singles, but it has never been my game to play that way," Kishan said. "If I get a ball [in my area], I'll try to hit it, because I had got that far in my innings by playing that way. Even when I took chances against Nortje, I was batting on 80 or 85. I never get into that zone where I look to score runs for myself. If I'm playing for India and thinking of playing for myself, I'll be letting down the fans and everyone who supports us."
"Obviously, you feel bad when you're not part of the team for a big tournament where you could get good exposure. If you win a World Cup for your country, it's an entirely different, proud feeling. But I feel the selectors and coaches must have seen some shortcomings [in my game], and even I feel there's a need for improvement. I know I haven't given my best performance yet."
Ishan Kishan after his ODI best of 93
Kishan knows his strengths, and trusts them. And he's also honest about his weaknesses.
"Obviously, you feel bad when you're not part of the team for a big tournament where you could get good exposure," he said, when asked about missing out on the T20 World Cup. "If you win a World Cup for your country, it's an entirely different, proud feeling.
"But I feel the selectors and coaches must have seen some shortcomings [in my game], and even I feel there's a need for improvement. I know I haven't given my best performance yet. As you know, there are plenty of batsmen in the team who are in form, whether it's middle order or openers, and they're batting really well. I'll wait for my time, but when I get that chance, I'll want to make sure I have the kind of confidence within me that my preparation is complete and I can win matches for my team. When I have that self-belief, I'll say I'm ready for that spot [in the team]."
It's Kishan's reality - and that of the likes of Iyer and Sanju Samson
- that they are incredibly gifted batters at a time when Indian cricket is awash with incredibly gifted batters. All they can do is bide their time, and score runs whenever they get a chance.
Before Sunday, Kishan had scored two fifties in his first seven ODIs, but he hadn't always shown the range of skills that a batter requires to score runs consistently in this format. Sunday's innings revealed that he has some of those skills. It may not have brought Kishan the "entirely different" feeling of doing it at a World Cup, but it was, in its own way, a breakthrough, after all those rollercoaster months.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo