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Feature

Rishabh Pant, making us have the time of our lives

How did a system as rigorous and mechanical as India's generate such a free spirit?

Early in the first session, while the crowd was still trickling in at Mohali, the ground announcer bellowed out instructions. "What a shot! Come on, say shabash, shout SHABAASH!" This was whenever Rohit Sharma or Mayank Agarwal hit a boundary.
Later, after India's new No. 3 had got out following his important, but staid, 58: "What a beautiful half-century from Hanuma Vihari! Well done."
It is a phenomenon most emphatically seen in the IPL, where the guy on the mic is more drill sergeant than hype artist. Here is when you cheer, these are the chants we want you to scream, now is when you start the Mexican wave, this is the trumpet klaxon to which you give the pre-approved response. Don't waste your neurons enjoying a whirlwind burst or a fierce spell on your own terms, and in case you feel yourself at risk of developing a personal connection with a performance - producing an original thought - we will be there in real time, in your ear, telling you how to feel about it.
Over the past 15 years, as India have built a cricket ecosystem the scale of which has never been seen, assembling vast networks of coaches, trainers, and scouts, generated pathways and zonal academies, and on top of all that, commodified sport with a singular intensity, there are shades of mechanical brutalism to this vision.
But then there is Rishabh Pant.
Behind-the-stumps quipper. Hummer of spiderman theme song. But most of all, bat in hand, purveyor of pure adrenaline/mayhem/joy.
Watch him run at Sri Lanka's spinners to larrup them waaay over deep midwicket during that 13-ball stretch, in which he blessed us with 42 runs. Go back, check the highlights. At the moment of contact, his legs are skewed away, as if they have been invited to a different dance than the rest of him. The torso is half-keeling over like a party boat on choppy seas. That his is not a shackled, or even particularly methodical, mind is clear to anyone who has ever watched him roll out his fun. But that technique is, and perhaps can only be, homespun.
For all India's moves towards mechanisation, this kind of thing they have tended to leave untouched. Oh, this is how you've played all your life? In galli games, on maidans, paper-ball matches in the hallway? Then ok, we will preserve.
And it's not like Pant has been untouched by the more refining influences of India's vast organisation. It is, of course, the frenzy - the three sixes and four fours - that Mohali will remember. But before that, there had also been a 50 that came off 75, when he had blocked, left, picked his moments, and generally stooped to such prosaic endeavours as rebuilding, and consolidating. (Yuck.)
But you don't really want to read about that. And I definitely don't want to write about it. The 42 off 13 balls, when there was no need to go on this kind of tear, save the fact Pant got caught up, and in turn, caught the rest of us up in whatever he was caught up, one flood of original thought setting in motion a multitude of others. Let's revel: there were two hyuuuge hits over cow corner. A run-down and one-handedly deposit the offspinner into the sightscreen type maneuver. Rocking back, blasting through extra. A big mis-hit through the legside, the bat twirling (for joy?) in his gloves.
Pant is not the only player in this India side that purveys this kind of visceral joy. There is, as one other example, Jasprit Bumrah. In earlier years, there was also true originals such as Virender Sehwag, and MS Dhoni, but then the India system from which they emerged was not the India system that spat out Pant. Plus, even they didn't do it quite like Pant has started to do it.
Anyway, as all this havoc was being wreaked, the ground announcer who'd been on the crowd's case all day went quiet, perhaps themselves acknowledging that now, they were redundant. In that 20-minute blitz, there was just Rishabh Pant swinging, or getting on one knee to shovel through square leg, gleefully pouring every atom in his body into his shots, looking as if he was having the time of his damn life.
And there was us, kinda doing the same.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf