What Karthik's successful return means for Pant

They don't play in the same role, but there are only so many batting slots and Karthik is this close to nailing one of them

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
As you expect with contemporary wicketkeepers, Rishabh Pant and Dinesh Karthik have intertwined careers. Pant's Test debut came in England in 2018 after Karthik didn't score too many in the first two Tests, thus ending one of the latter's many comebacks in international cricket. On their next visit to England, Pant and Karthik found themselves batting together at 5 for 3, trying to save India's dying World Cup dream.
Now Pant captains one of Karthik's former IPL teams, which is hard to avoid because Karthik has been around. And just as he has wandered around the IPL looking for a home, Karthik has been all over the India batting order looking for a role he can nail down.
Karthik's latest comeback comes with the best-defined role he has ever been in, which is why Pant's performance has no impact whatsoever on his fortunes. However, three years after his ordinary return paved the way for Pant to begin a hugely successful Test career, Karthik's successful return could jeopardise Pant's chances of making the T20 World Cup a little bit. But not for the reasons you'd imagine.
Their being wicketkeepers has got nothing to do with it. In India's Plan A, they are competing for two completely different roles. Karthik has come in for a specific role where the team looks to ensure he walks in no sooner than the 14th over. Pant, on the other hand, is an enforcer earlier in the innings, afforded a little more time to get himself in. There is a temptation to open with him too, which is what he did so successfully in junior cricket, but it is not easy to give him a run there with so many other top-order batters around.
It is only in a less-than-ideal scenario where India fail to find another finisher with Hardik Pandya that Pant or Suryakumar Yadav plays that floater's role. Now that India have found the ideal combination - Pandya, Karthik and Ravindra Jadeja or Axar Patel making up the lower middle order - Pant doesn't have that fallback option. Karthik fitting into the finisher's role is great news for India but not so great for Pant and other middle- and top-order aspirants.
Now if we imagine the eminently possible scenario of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli being untouchable, and with KL Rahul the first man to walk into an India T20 batting line-up, there is only one spot left in a full-strength India batting line-up for Pant, Suryakumar, Sanju Samson, Shreyas Iyer and Ishan Kishan to compete for. Under this team management, which likes role clarity, it is hard to imagine one of them pushing Karthik out and playing out of position.
Pant has a lot going for him for that No. 4 slot. He is the best wicketkeeper insofar as the keeping matters, and despite many documented struggles he still doesn't have bad numbers. He is among only 10 players to have averaged over 30 and struck at over 150 across the recently concluded IPL season. Eight of them scored 300 runs or more, and of those eight, Pant was the only one without a single 50-plus score.
Which means no visible "match-winning" innings because his brilliance hasn't had the length or the recency bias that traditionally stays in observers' minds. These numbers suggest remarkable consistency but unfortunately that one over in which you took down the opposition's main middle-overs weapon doesn't stick in the memory if you don't score 80 or finish a chase. Not that Pant sets out to score only 30s, but the strike-rate that he went at - a clear upgrade on his last two seasons - involved the risk of getting out any time. It is clear his teams want him to play in a specific way, and it is all right if he gets out in pursuit of quick runs as long as he has made sure the finisher is coming in only after the 13th over or so.
It can't be denied that the wide line has worked against Pant of late, but he will not be unmindful of it. He will work with Rahul Dravid and other coaches to counter the tactic. The international series against South Africa, of course, was not great for Pant, but this team management is not going to make knee-jerk decisions. Pant also happens to be a left-hand batter, which works massively in his favour if India do go ahead with a top three of Rohit, Rahul and Kohli.
Whether Rohit and Kohli should both be in the XI is a story for another day. The conditions expected at the World Cup and their experience in those conditions work in their favour. Quicker, bouncier pitches can take some time to get used to, and T20 World Cups are notorious for teams getting knocked out early. Having said that, is it a luxury to have two similar batters who don't score quickly in the middle overs?
That is a tricky and unenviable decision to make for Rohit and Dravid, but if both Rohit and Kohli are certain starters, Pant and Suryakumar will likely be fighting for that final spot in the batting line-up. It will be harsh on one of them to sit out, but India will be glad they have found a specialist finisher, and will not have to push one of their middle-overs enforcers into a death-overs role.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo