Mahendra Singh Dhoni is, without doubt, the most accomplished and celebrated wicketkeeper-batsman that the Indian cricket team has ever had.
However, nothing lasts forever and just as Dhoni’s career was winding down, India’s cricket fans and the officials behind the scenes realized that they didn’t have anyone to fill the gigantic shoes that Dhoni would leave behind.
This was a bigger vacuum to fill than when Sachin Tendulkar retired as India was left listless in three major areas.
India had to find an explosive batsman, a clever and gifted wicketkeeper, and a shrewd tactician behind the stumps.
While the last of these wasn’t paramount, the first two were something India could not dispense with.
Initially, Dinesh Karthik was suggested as a replacement and while he is a gifted wicketkeeper and batsman, he isn’t that much younger than Dhoni.
Another alternative was Wriddhiman Saha.
He is arguably a better wicketkeeper than Dhoni and a dependable batsman in test cricket but his skills in limited-over cricket weren’t what the ODI and T20 setup needed.
India could have gone with the likes of KL Rajul filling in that spot but it wasn’t seen as an enduring solution.
As such, Rishabh Pant on the back of an impressive under-19 world cup campaign and the 2016 IPL season was given the opportunity to make his T20 debut in 2017.
He would make it into the ODI squad and the Test squad a year later as well.
He has now had more than three years at the highest level and even now it cannot be said with certainty that he is the first-choice wicketkeeper-batsman in any of the three formats.
So, what went wrong?
Let us find out.
Two words that are always associated with a good wicketkeeper-batsman has been ‘dependable’ and ‘consistent’.
This was true for everyone from Adam Gilchrist to Kumara Sangakkara.
It was also what made Dhoni such a big name.
However, Pant is neither.
As a wicketkeeper, he doesn’t have safe hands. The high-stakes world of international cricket leaves very little room for error and Pant just hasn’t been dependable enough.
This is especially true when the ball tends to swing more often than not. Pant particularly appears clueless against Jasprit Bumrah and has conceded quite a few leg byes and byes while keeping for India’s best bowler.
This affords the opposition team’s batsmen breathing room that can dull the efficacy of the bowler.
He appears a bit too flat-footed and often bewildered. This is also the reason he has not been able to affect as many stumpings as his predecessors and peers.
Misfiring in batting too
Wicketkeeping is just one-half of the equation.
Gone are the days when wicketkeepers could stay in the team just on their keeping credentials.
These days, they are an integral part of the batting line-up.
On paper, Pant is the perfect candidate. He has an explosive batting style and he is a left-hander. Both of these qualities are invaluable in cricket.
However, he rarely performs to his full potential.
He often throws his wicket away cheaply as is evidenced by the fact that he has never remained unbeaten in his ODI career despite being a lower middle-order batsman.
This is a travesty as he can make the best bowlers look ordinary when he is on song which happens far too infrequently.
Doesn’t learn from mistakes
Being an explosive batsman has a risk in the form of a higher probability of losing your wicket.
However, the best batsmen of this ilk know how to take calculated risks.
They wait patiently for poor deliveries.
Pant has a tendency to go after each and every ball and that is how he often throws his wicket away after just scoring a boundary or two.
He also tends to make the same mistakes again and again and bowlers often have an easy time against him once they figure out the chinks in his armor.
This was evident in the recently concluded IPL. Initially, it was chalked down to inexperience and youth but at 23 years of age, he is old enough to know better.
Had there been a stronger candidate, someone like Pant would not even be considered for selection but unique circumstances have afforded him opportunity after opportunity.
His place in the senior team is his to lose as the likes of Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson have upped their game considerably and Pant is on a very short leash as a result.
If Pant doesn’t buck up, it could be curtains for his career.
Cover image credit: Rishabh Pant