Moments after KL Rahul sealed the game against South Africa in Thiruvananthapuram with a six, Rishabh Pant dragged a support staff onto the corner of the ground and made him spit throw-downs. Some of the crowd who were leaving the stadium stopped and began to watch Pant, cheering him and exhorting him to unfurl the big strokes. Pant resisted the urges and seemed inclined to dead-bat the ball, but for an instance when he slashed a really wide ball, he hit the ball so hard that some of the television crew packing up their equipment after the presentation ceremony had to seek split-second evasive action. Pant waved a sorry and continued his dead-batting exercise.
Of late, he is spotted batting mostly at the nets or before or after the games. His keenness is unmissable—he is often the first to pad up and the last to un-pad, even in the searing heat of Dubai. The real outings in the middle have been sparse. He was not required to bat in the last two games—against South Africa on Wednesday and Australia in Nagpur—and was benched for the first two matches against Australia.
You could contend that he did not make the best of his breaks in the Asia Cup, where thrice in four games he strode out to bat before the 15th over, and apart from the inconsequential game against Afghanistan, he didn’t strike hot or rich.
But it’s all the more a compelling reason to give him adequate game-time in the middle, so that he finds some morale-lifting runs under his belt, but also a better clarity on his role and get more accustomed to it. The team seems yet to figure out his best function, where he would fit in the best: whether he is a finisher, floater, or a middle-order destroyer. Even Pant himself seems confused and cluttered.
A Pant with an uncluttered mindset is a game-changer as opposed to a Pant in dilemma. His Test career is a classic example. There was a time when he was caught in two, whether to attack or defend, and ended up doing neither. A chat with then coach Ravi Shastri and some introspection helped him discover the clarity, and thereafter his career blossomed. Pant, in red-ball cricket, is one of the most feared cricketers. But somehow, he has been unable to harness the big-hitting abilities in the shortest format.
Incidentally, it took a while for Virender Sehwag too to get going in limited-overs cricket. He was well established as a Test cricketer before finding his feet in the ODIs.
Not that Pant lacks the game, but perhaps he needs a shot of confidence, or a spark of ignition from somewhere, or a knock that could turn his T20 career around. One of the solutions was to give him considerable time in the middle. It was understandable why he was not furnished with ample time in the long build-up to the T20 World Cup. There were pressing concerns at the top of the order, but now that those fears are allayed, with the top-four contributing regularly, it’s high time the focus shifted to giving the middle order more batting time.
Rather, there is no time at all. Inconsequential encounters, as the series against Australia was and the one against South Africa, present an ideal platform. Winning could even be secondary, as teams look to ensure that no stone is left unturned, or any aspect left unattended. For India, furnishing the middle order with more batting is part of that fine-tuning business.
Dinesh Karthik also needs game time
Not just Pant, Dinesh Karthik too has spent just a few minutes in the middle. He was not required to bat in Thiruvananthapuram, faced just eight balls in three games against Australia. Twice, he remained unbeaten. In the Asia Cup, he only faced one ball (one not out) in three games. So, India’s designated finisher has only countered nine balls in his last seven games and has been dismissed just once, in case you are left wondering if it has been a case of him enduring a torrid time. To stretch it further, in his last 17 games, he has dealt only 95 balls, that is five balls a game on an average.
Though it’s a healthy sign that India’s top four are batting so well that the middle-order is seldom summoned for salvage acts, there should always be emergency plans in place. There could be days when the quartet of Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Suryakumar Yadav and Virat Kohli could collectively fail, as it transpired against Pakistan (Kohli apart) in the previous edition of the T20 World Cup, or before that in the 2019 50-over World Cup semi final against New Zealand, or drag the memory further back to the 2017 Champions Trophy final. Though it is the top four that end up hoarding the most number of deliveries in a T20 game, the value of the middle and lower orders can’t be understated. In a perfect world, they should be as well-tuned as the first four.
WHAT. A. FINISH! 👍 👍
— BCCI (@BCCI) September 23, 2022
Both the individuals and the team would stand to benefit, even if they bat out of their usual positions. A counter-argument hangs. Are not the middle and lower orders equipped to deal with similar vagaries? Is it not their primary business, the dual roles of orchestrating rescue operations and finishing games? True as those arguments are, some game time and runs would do them little harm, rather make the team stronger, all their bases covered.
Before the series, captain Sharma had addressed the issue of Pant and Karthik being under-utilised as batsmen. “I obviously wanted these guys to have a number of games under their belt before the World Cup. When we went to the Asia Cup, both these guys were in the fray to play all the games or whenever there is an opportunity or if there is a tactical matchup, we can bring in those guys. But I just feel that Dinesh needs a little more game time, so does Pant.”
The series-opener against South Africa seemed ideal, more so after the visitors were restricted to 106. But with the strip still offering some assistance for the seamers, and South Africa possessing two of the finest in the business, they chose a more a conservative approach and stuck to the usual permutation. But there are two more games to go, and perhaps Pant and Karthik would be dispensed with more time to bat in a real game than at the nets or during warm-ups.