Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
A return to the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, the venue of his international debut, should have triggered happy memories for Rishabh Pant. Instead, days before Delhi Daredevils' first match of IPL 2017, Pant's world was turned upside down with the death of his father. He left for Roorkee and performed his father's last rites in Haridwar before joining the team in Bengaluru on Friday.
"We are going to really need the whole team to rally around him to give him a lot of support not only over the next couple of days but throughout the IPL," coach Paddy Upton said on the eve of the match against Royal Challengers Bangalore. At that stage, Upton wasn't quite sure if Pant would play, given his state of mind.
"Something like this is obviously going to affect him in the medium and long term. We just have to be mindful and supportive of his personal situation and family situation," Upton said. And so the team management left it to Pant to decide whether he would play and he chose to do so because "his father would have asked for no less".
On match day, making his way out for a short hit next to the centre pitch, Pant was greeted by every member of the opposition who offered their condolences. He accepted the gesture and, although you couldn't say what was going through his mind, there was a sense he was focused on the match.
Before the match began, amid the song and dance of the opening ceremony, the cameras panned to both teams and a visual of Pant and his team-mates was displayed on the giant screen. Pant, in the middle of the frame, was staring straight into the lens, with a deadpan expression. His team-mates nudged him. It needed an arm around him to get him to smile eventually. The team was doing what they could to emotionally support him.
"I was telling the boys, if my dad passed away I would be on the first plane out of here. Have to be very honest," allrounder Chris Morris said after the match. "It's about what my dad means to me. It takes a big person to come a couple of days after your father has passed away and play. He said his dad would have wanted him playing. It shows his character. He's going to be a big player for India in the future."
The fact that Pant chose to put tragedy behind him and play was worthy enough of praise, even if he did not go on to do anything significant in the game. Instead, over the next three hours, he showed why he is a special talent.
Admirable composure and a fierce ball-striking ability helped him muscle a quick half-century that kept Daredevils in the hunt in their chase of 158, even as the lower order collapsed. The audacity of his strokeplay left a lasting impression on some 25,000 fans at the ground, who applauded each of the four sixes he hit, even if it meant Royal Challengers had to scamper to survive.
From the time he smashed his first ball for six, there was a sense that he would bat the way he has been known to all along - see the ball and give it a good whack. More than the shots, he exuded the confidence of a man well aware of what he was trying to do. He trusted his abilities, instinct and shot selection: there were no shots in anger or desperation.
One over could have been the difference between a win for Royal Challengers or a second loss. Pant had just sent Tymal Mills' last ball, in the 18th over, soaring over deep fine leg. Daredevils needed 21 off two overs, well within the realms of possibility for a batsman who strikes at over 100 in first-class cricket. Instead, Pant watched as Amit Mishra committed hara-kiri by playing out four dot balls in the penultimate over, leaving Daredevils with 19 to get off six balls. The first ball of the final over, Pant was bowled by Pawan Negi trying to slog sweep.
For all that Pant didn't show while batting, the emotions were out in the open as he walked off. He grimaced, shook his head, looked up and then looked down, wondering what may have been. At that stage, the result didn't matter. This wasn't about a win or a loss, but about a 20-year old who showed character and heart through the toughest emotional battle he may have yet faced.