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Will India throw Rishabh Pant in at Basin Reserve?

He is no Saha, but his match-turning potential with the bat can be handy when the team needs quick second-innings runs

Rishabh Pant takes a catch, Australia v India, 1st Test, Adelaide, 2nd day, December 7, 2018

Rishabh Pant takes a catch  •  Getty Images

It was a familiar, endearing sight. A pogo-stick jump with right arm at full stretch, to yank a wayward bouncer out of the air with the very edge of the glove, and just about prevent four byes. Then that familiar, boyish Rishabh Pant grin as he dusted himself off and flicked the ball to a colleague in the slips.
The ball was new, and it was trampolining off the Seddon Park pitch whenever Umesh Yadav, bowling his first over, the second of the New Zealand XI innings, banged it in. There were two bouncers in the over, the one described above and another that defied Pant's gymnastic exertions to run away for four byes.
Those exertions have provided some of the defining images of the early part of Pant's life as an international wicketkeeper; the dives and salmon leaps are often spectacular, but they sometimes leave you wondering if he's made a routine grab look difficult.
He isn't Wriddhiman Saha, in short.
Not being Saha cost Pant his place in India's Test XI during their 2019-20 home season. The potential for Indian pitches to throw up inconsistent pace and bounce, and natural variation, and the prospect of needing to keep to spin for large chunks of time, led India to pick the virtuosity of Saha's glovework over the match-turning potential of Pant's batting.
But New Zealand pitches aren't like Indian pitches, by and large, and India's use of Pant and Saha in their only warm-up game before the Tests suggested they might be thinking differently here. Pant batted above Saha in both innings, scoring an insouciant 65-ball 70 in the second, and kept wickets for longer, taking on the first and third sessions of day two while Saha took the gloves between lunch and tea.
Pant has been in New Zealand ever since India arrived here, but he hadn't featured in any of the five T20Is or the three ODIs that preceded the Hamilton warm-up. That game, in fact, was his first in any format since the Mumbai ODI against Australia on January 14, in which he had suffered the concussion that paved the way for KL Rahul to take the white-ball keeping gloves from him and - for the time being at least - keep them.
India, therefore, may have given Pant an extended workload in the warm-up game merely to keep him match-ready, in case he's needed in Wellington, with Saha remaining their first choice.
And as exciting a batting prospect as Pant is, and as good as his Test record is, with hundreds in England and Australia, Saha has scored his share of match-defining runs too: backs-to-the-wall centuries against West Indies in St Lucia and Australia in Ranchi, most notably, as well as a Player-of-the-Match-winning pair of fifties against New Zealand in Kolkata. When India pick him over Pant, they most certainly weigh in his batting too.
Even in Hamilton, Saha followed Pant to the crease and made an unfussy, unbeaten 30 before the teams agreed to call off the match.
But there's an undeniable extra something to Pant's batting, apparent even when he defends the fast bowlers. The ball is angled across him, and his front foot is out but not fully planted; his weight is still on the back foot. It doesn't look right, but he seems to have all the time in the world to wait for the ball and dab it, with the softest of hands, towards backward point.
The next ball is more or less the same, landing on a similar line and within the spectrum of lengths usually defined as "good", but it's a couple of inches shorter than the previous ball. Those couple of inches are imperceptible to most batsmen, but Pant has that extra split-second, and he can stand tall and slap the ball away to backward point's left.
It's a gift, rare and precious, and if some of his dismissals make it seem as if he is unaware of exactly how good he is and how good he can be, remember that he's only 22, and that very few wicketkeeper-batsmen have achieved as much as he has at a similar stage of their careers.
The rough edges may still be apparent, both behind and in front of the stumps, but few are capable of doing what he can to a bowling attack. It's for this reason that he could still feature in Wellington.
The ball might swing and seam there, but the bounce should be consistent, and much of the wicketkeeper's work will probably be done standing back. And after helping the quicks on the first two days, New Zealand pitches have tended to flatten out considerably in recent years. Pant's batting could prove especially handy in a scenario where India need quick second-innings runs to give themselves more time to bowl the opposition out.
The other factor in Pant's favour is that New Zealand's only spinner, if he plays, will be Ajaz Patel; India would like to have at least one left-hand batsman in their top seven to put some pressure on his left-arm orthodox.
For these reasons, whether or not he's their first choice, India will most certainly be tempted to throw Pant in at the Basin Reserve.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo