Pant experiment doesn’t come off, but step in right direction

In the end, the tactic to open with Rishabh Pant backlashed. He was expected to turn on the ignition, but laboured to 18 off 34 balls on a surface where the ball swung and seamed when new. Until a frantic surge, he looked overstrung, at times even desperate to justify the decision. Had the move worked, it would have been the first masterstroke of new captain Rohit Sharma’s tenure. It did not.

Yet, for the apparent failure as well as the ridicule both Pant and Sharma could face, it was a progressive move, a step in the right direction in the country’s pursuit for impetus at the top of the order, even a potentially landscape-altering one. Thus, the merit and rationale of the ploy should not be judged on the basis of a solitary outcome. Just as the move should not have been instantly glorified had it come off.

Later, in a ground-side chat with broadcasters, Sharma specified that regular opener Shikhar Dhawan would reclaim his spot when he returns. “People will be happy seeing Rishabh open then, but yeah it is not permanent. We will get Shikhar back in the next game. We want to try a few things with the long term in the mind,” he said.

But don’t be surprised if Pant strides out as an opener more frequently. That India needs ammo up the order is well-acknowledged. All of their trusted — and proven — top-order batsmen are exemplary stroke-makers and inscrutable match-winners. But none of them — from Sharma to Dhawan and Virat Kohli to KL Rahul — can turbocharge an innings at the start. Like, say, Jason Roy in the last World Cup (443 runs at a strike rate of 115). They could accelerate and improvise later in their knocks, but not when they are fresh at the crease, like Virender Sehwag in the past. To replicate what Sehwag at his destructive peak achieved is difficult, but Pant could offer a good shot.

There is no denying Pant has the Sehwagian streak of insouciance. He has the courage to smear the first ball he faces for a boundary; he is unfazed by the ball that has just beaten him; he does not get cowed down by failures or criticism; at the crease he radiates with infectious positivity, and most of all, he can win matches and disorient bowlers. He might not have won as many games as befits his inexorable potential, but has demonstrated in Test matches and T20s that he could define games.

Not a specialist’s job

That he is not a specialist opener is not a viable argument either. Neither were Sehwag or even Sachin Tendulkar or Rohit Sharma, neither Sanath Jayasuriya nor Adam Gilchrist. Opening in white-ball cricket has long ceased to be a specialist’s job. On the contrary, makeshifts have accosted themselves better to the changing dimensions of the role. It is not stability that they are supposed to provide, but impetus, the tempo-setting knockout blow. At least in India, one doesn’t need to possess a watertight technique to weather a swinging ball. And it’s in India where the next 50-over World Cup would be played. So, every plot and step would be in that direction.

Coincidentally, Sehwag too failed in his first three innings as an opener in this version of the game, but rattled out a destiny-changing 100 off 70 balls against New Zealand in Colombo. So, the Pant move bristles with mouth-watering possibilities. The left-hander could metamorphose into an unbridled tempo-setter up the order. The rest of the top order could bide their time and dig in for the long haul.

Not that opening is a vexing concern for India — Dhawan and Sharma are among the best in the world — but grooming Pant could be a win-win for both him and his team. If not a permanent role, he could be a backup plan, not only if one of the regulars is injured (they have a knack of picking one too often), but also in the eventuality of India chasing a steep total or needing to qualify for the knockout stages by boosting net run rate. Coach Rahul Dravid could be employing the same flexibility mantra that was the hallmark of his captaincy days. Besides, Sharma is 34, Dhawan 36. Age could catch up with their reflexes. It’s high time India streamlined their successors.

A big incentive could be that Pant might finally unlock his ODI potential. For all his sizzle in the longest format, he has only sparkled sporadically in this format — in 21 innings, he has averaged just 31, not yet reached three figures, and batted mostly at 4, 5 and 6, where often he has seemed confounded in the anointed finisher’s role. He seems to have withered under the immense shadow of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The move up the order could, in turn, take him further away from Dhoni’s shadow and liberate him. It could muscle up India’s batting line-up too.

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