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How do India get the best out of Rishabh Pant the T20 batter?

The series in New Zealand is an opportunity for the team management to define his role clearly in the shortest format

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
"You guys wanted Rishabh Pant to play, right? Right from India, you kept asking, where is Rishabh Pant, where is Rishabh Pant? There he is, at No. 4. (Laughs)"
That was Rohit Sharma at Edgbaston in July 2019, when asked whether he was surprised that Pant had been sent in at No. 4 in a chase of 338 against England during the ODI World Cup. The wicketkeeper-batter had joined India's squad only four days earlier as a replacement for the injured Shikhar Dhawan.
That Pant wasn't in India's original World Cup squad was the subject of widespread debate, with his Delhi Capitals coach Ricky Ponting saying India were losing out on having an X-factor player. Vijay Shankar and Dinesh Karthik had made the trip to England ahead of Pant.
If you are wondering why we're bringing up an incident from 2019 in November 2022, it's because the discourse around Pant the white-ball cricketer hasn't progressed much in the last three years, despite him becoming Capitals' captain in the IPL and featuring in two T20 World Cups.
For much of India's lead-up to the 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia, Pant was competing with Karthik for a place in the XI. That he eventually lost out to the 37-year-old wasn't as widely debated as it was in 2019. After all, while Pant has established himself as India's first-choice wicketkeeper in Test cricket, he hasn't been able to do it in T20 cricket.
Here's what the data says, and it contradicts the perception that Pant is a destroyer in the shortest format. Among 122 batters to have faced at least 1000 balls in T20 cricket since October 2019, Pant's strike rate of 129.34 ranks 94th. There are some illustrious names who have strike rates lower than Pant, but they are all traditional anchors. Pant isn't.
Dig a little deeper, and the numbers are more revealing. As per ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats impact, Pant ranks 57th among 65 players who have batted at least 50 times in the top six since October 2019 (in T20Is between Full Members and matches in the IPL, PSL, BBL, CPL and Vitality Blast). For perspective Sanju Samson, who wasn't part of India's T20 World Cup squad, ranks 25th on this list.
That it became Pant versus Karthik was largely down to the IPL form. Pant wasn't poor in IPL 2022 - 340 runs in 13 innings at a strike rate of 151.78 - but Karthik was sublime as a finisher for RCB - 330 runs at a strike rate of 183.33 - and he was the preferred choice in India's XI for the first four Super 12 group games in Australia.
However, after Karthik made scores of only 1, 6 and 7, India ditched Plan A and turned to Pant for their last group match against Zimbabwe, as well as the semi-final. Pant found himself in yet another World Cup game against England, with questions around why he had not been sent in earlier than No. 6 with two overs remaining. He made 6 off 4 balls before he was run out, as another World Cup campaign for India fizzled out.
Now, as India build towards the next T20 World Cup in 2024, the question is - how do they get the best out of Rishabh Pant the T20 batter? Is his appetite for audacity best suited for the middle order, or should it be unleashed at the top to try to give India the rocket-fuelled starts they sorely missed in Australia?
Pant is the vice-captain for the three T20Is in New Zealand starting on November 18, and with Rohit, Virat Kohli and KL Rahul resting, he has got a clear runway if India want to play him in the top order. The end of the road for Karthik, however, does not mean Pant can take the wicketkeeper-batter role as his for granted, because he has got competition from Ishan Kishan and Samson.
But if Pant is the first choice, and all indications are that he is, then role clarity is crucial along with an extended run in that role. India have a multitude of batters to choose from and fit into five or six slots. Pant needs to know if he is going to get a run in the middle order along with Suryakumar Yadav, Shreyas Iyer, Samson, Deepak Hooda and Hardik Pandya, and be told the role he has to perform; or whether he is in the running for a top-order slot along with Kishan and Shubman Gill.
And what happens if or when Rohit, Rahul and Kohli return to the T20I set-up somewhere down the line?
With the next T20 World Cup two years away, India have time to decide the type of T20 cricket they want to play, and find players to execute that plan. And you would imagine a crucial piece of that puzzle is getting Pant to realise his potential in the shortest format. Because whatever India have tried so far hasn't produced great results.
There are plenty of opportunities coming up in the near future. It's up to the Indian team management to create the best environment for Pant to succeed, and for him to make the most of it. Will it begin in New Zealand?

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo