IT’S TIME TO BLOSSOM
At nearly every juncture, Pant has had Tarak Sinha’s reassuring presence every time he’s looked over his shoulder. © Getty
He’ll hit you for a six…
He’ll babysit your kids…
In the midst of India’s utter dominance in the Melbourne Test in January, Rishabh Pant got an odd request. It came from behind the stumps from the Australian captain Tim Paine, gift-wrapped as witty banter. The news of MS Dhoni’s return to the limited-overs squad had reached the Aussie dressing room and Paine decided to use that as a metaphorical poking device against the Delhi boy.
Paine sold Pant the idea of the fine Hobart life and the prospect of playing in BBL when Dhoni takes over, and asked him to even babysit his kids when he takes his missus out for a movie. Pant offered no immediate rebuttal through all of the banter, but went a step ahead later. He ‘obliged’.
The photo on Mrs. Paine’s instagram feed, of Pant carrying Paine’s kids, proved to be an ‘elite’ conclusion to top-class banter, and even invoked a song from the Bharat Army where creative liberties were taken with rhyming sentences.
There was a charming irony to the entire episode, as just under a decade ago, Pant had arrived in Delhi as a dreamy Roorkee boy who, besides a lot of cricket, needed some ‘babysitting’ himself. Pant brought with him a ravenous appetite for the game, but along came a ‘craving’ for family as he had to settle into life in a four-by-four room all by himself.
“That time I was too young. Abhi bhi young hoon, but uss samay bohot chota tha main. So uss samay zyada craving hoti hai family ki. At least ab thoda sa knowledge aa gaya hai ki kaise manage karna hai. Family ki toh hamesha craving sab ko hi rehti hai but woh tha uss time pe,” [That time I was too young. I am young now too, but at that time I was very young. At that time, there was a lot of craving for family. At least now, I have some knowledge of how to manage. Everyone craves for family all the time but that was there at that time],” Pant says in chat with Cricbuzz.
If you walk past the Durgabai Deshkmukh South Campus metro station in South Delhi for the first time, there’s a very good chance you’ll miss the small entrance to Sonnet Cricket Academy. But the world inside was where all the magic happened for a 12-year-old Pant and his passionate father who had a vision full of cricket for his son. And it all began in the yearly summer camp between May 15 and June 30, under the watchful eyes of coach Tarak Sinha.
“We spotted him at that time. We conducted a tournament here in which he batted really well. The sort of sixes he hits now, he hit back then,” Sinha said in a conversation with Cricbuzz. Davendra Sharma, a former Delhi wicketkeeper who now works alongside Sinha, also recalled his first glimpse of Pant – a left-hander with lots of time on his hand to play his shots.
“Whenever a player like this comes to the nets, you know that he’s going to be a good player and you bring him to [Sinha] sir’s attention – tell him that he’s a good kid, plays well and we should promote him further and play him a lot in the age-group tournaments so that the chances of him becoming an international player increases,” Sharma says.
Pant didn’t stop at showing his promise in the nets. The devastation smoothly transitioned to the field, as he hit three centuries in four matches in his first-ever tournament at the academy. “In one game I scored 155 runs in 74 balls, that I still remember. It was my first 100 here. It was an under-13 tournament – Sonnet Cup. Next match I scored another 100… it was a 40 overs game and I walked out to bat in the 18th over. I got a bat for best batsman of the tournament. Ashish bhaiya awarded me the bat, which I used over the years and broke. At that time we didn’t have too much equipment so we had to capitalise on whatever we had,” Pant says.
In a competitive cricket centre like Delhi, it came as a great advantage to Pant that he could turn the attention of the powers-that-be (at Sonnet) towards him very early. But that was only the beginning of the unbelievably steep uphill climb. Sinha and Sharma saw it fit to invest in what they viewed as a rare talent, and helped him settle in, in a Paying Guest accommodation right by the ground. For 45 days of the camp, his mother stayed with him but cricket wasn’t going to help run their middle-class family. His mother returned to Roorkee where she ran a school, leaving Pant to himself and his cricket.
Even when cricket kept him busy for majority of the day, there was the daunting prospect of going back to an empty PG room to live all alone at such a young age. Because Sinha and Sharma believed so strongly in his talents, they took measures to ensure no external factor – such as this – came as a deterrent.
“When he joined the club, he had nobody he knew, in Delhi. When you finish a game and go back home, you need your people to be around to motivate you, to tell you what went wrong, what needs to be improved. So in the evenings, he used to come to me and stay at my house. We used to spend hours talking cricket,” Sharma says.
The nurturing extended beyond Sonnet, particularly from Sharma to address Pant’s ‘craving’ outside of the field. “Mr & Mrs. Sharma played an important role. What happens is, at [such] an age you have a need for family. And Mrs. Sharma played that part. Giving him good food, talking to him… There’s a lot besides coaching and cricket which a family talks about, so they did that job,” Sinha says.
The coach duo appeared to be going an extra mile for just one amongst 100s of wards, but that wasn’t just a one-way effort. Pant was not just rare for the skills he showed in training as a 13-year-old, but also for the focus and resolve to keep at it while most boys his age would’ve sought simpler joys elsewhere.
“In our club, I’ve not seen kids work this hard. We train here from morning 7 to evening 7, during which he’d be with us. Going back home for him was only to eat and sleep,” Sharma says. “He’d work hard like a good player, like an enthusiastic small boy. He left no stones unturned in the effort he put in. To come from that far away and stay here, stay alone. It isn’t easy for a 13-year-old to stay alone and away from his family, but he did. And that’s because he knew he wanted to play cricket, wanted to move forward in the game. So this way he kept working hard. His father’s dream was to watch him be a good player. So he kept training to fulfil that dream.”
Pant finished the Australia tour with an exceptional knock of 159 – a score achieved after he found a way to maturely deal with Nathan Lyon.a © Getty
Sharma also revealed that Pant, perhaps uncharacteristic of any typical teenager in India, never showed signs of homesickness, and directed all his energies towards his cricket. “Whenever there was a break in the state matches, I would call his mom and say ‘Now you come to Delhi and feed him good food’. Our effort would be that when his mother would come, he isn’t alone at home.”
While Sharma ensured there was more to the young boy’s life than just cricket and practice, Sinha’s focus remained to taking his cricket to the next level. Sinha had been around for decades and was aware of the pulse of Delhi cricket, which prompted him to take Pant along with him to Rajasthan, where he was a director at cricket academies. Pant held his end of the bargain there, by not letting the level of his game drop, and quickly broke into the Under-14 and Under-16 sides. Soon, however, he’d fall prey to politics in Rajasthan cricket and pack his bags to return to Delhi.
Pant’s cricket was still kept alive at Sonnet, but the need for basic formal education took him out of the PG, and into a rented house in Palam, not too far away from the Air Force School in Delhi Cantonment area. During a two-year period in this phase, Pant’s cricket progression was smooth as he showed consistency in the trial tournaments all season for the U-19 selection, but something else went awry, when he once missed practice.
“We went there [his rented house in Palam] once when he was hurt and unwell – down with fever – and he didn’t turn up for practice. [Tarak Sinha] Sir and I went to see him and we saw that the place was very filthy. So we got him shifted out of there right away,” Sharma said.
Bags were once again packed and he moved all the way to Chattarpur, about 14 kilometers away from his daily practice location.
“I have a friend in Chattarpur, to whom I said I need a place arranged for Rishabh, so I went and saw a flat for him. Now the equipment is a lot in cricket, more so for a wicketkeeper. So there were a lot of bags, so I got him a two-room flat in Chattarpur. That guy was good so he pretty much didn’t take any rent. There was a Shani Dev temple close by and there was facility for meals there. Because after you play, you get hungry in the evening and you should be able to eat well,” Sharma said.
Pant also had the option of going to his coach’s friend’s house for food. Sharma too opened the doors of his vegetarian household for the chicken-loving Pant, having him over every time he yearned for homemade food.
Once the routine was set, cricket came thick and fast. It was the sort of immensely-competitive environment that could chew up and spit out cricketers who came unprepared. Between October 2015 and February 2016, back-to-back events begged questions of his temperament, and Pant turned to Sinha.
A Ranji trophy debut – at home against a Wriddhiman Saha-led Bengal – was up ahead and a restless Pant trained hard in the nets at Sonnet and sought some words of wisdom from the coach. For Sinha, who had seen Pant excel at swinging his bat fearlessly at every opportunity without any hesitation and be successful, there wasn’t much advice to offer.
The oft used line “treat it like a club game” came Pant’s way. After a 46-ball 28 in the first innings another call went to Sinha the same evening with more questions. But the answers remained similar. This time around, he did much better at taking the instruction of playing his natural game, and finished with an impressive 71-ball 57. There was joy for Pant that evening, and a bit of irony for his opposite team’s skipper. Saha, who rated Pant a special talent on that day, has now perhaps lost his India spot to him despite not doing much wrong, besides getting injured, which wasn’t in his control.
In early 2016, there’d be another SOS call, all the way from Bangladesh. Pant made an ordinary start to his Under-19 World Cup campaign and was desperate to turn a corner. “He was very upset and called me, asking, ‘Sir what do I do?’. I cheered him up and said two bad innings are part of the game, performances will come,” Sharma said. And as if on cue, his most important one came. On February 1, a 28-ball 74 – the fastest fifty at the Under-19 level – served as a perfect audition five days ahead of the IPL auction. And unsurprisingly, four teams – Mumbai Indians, Rising Pune Supergiants, Royal Challengers Bangalore and, his eventual employers, Delhi Daredevils – jostled fiercely for his signature. The result was a contract worth INR 1.9 Crore – an amount worth 19 times his base price.
Pant returned with a runners-up World Cup medal and an IPL to look forward to. Yet, if Sinha’s words are to be believed, the Delhi cricket idiom – with great success comes greater criticism – kept him and his star pupil on their toes. At just 18, he was still a slightly chubby kid (as was Virat Kohli during his Under-19 days), and attracted fitness-centred vollies. Sinha and Sharma found a way to keep those at bay too – by hiring a specialist trainer to concentrate just on Pant’s fitness.
“After he played the U19 World Cup, people said he was unfit. So we arranged special fitness classes for him over here, so that he can get fit. The problem in Delhi is that there’s a lot of criticism – they’d say his keeping is not upto the mark, and if he kept well, they’d question his batting. There’s a lot of criticism. So after the U19 WC we had these classes to raise his fitness levels. We put it in his mind that he’ll be a fit cricketer,” Sharma reckoned.
“The trainer used to put him to work [on endurance and speed]. At times if we felt Rishabh wasn’t doing the training, our sir would secretively check on him to see if he’s doing it or not. Because he was still a kid. So we were trying to ensure he would mature quickly as a player. He’s become really smart, and now he’s learnt from Virat Kohli on how to keep fit,” Sharma says with a chuckle.
It wasn’t easy for a 12-year-old kid from Roorkee to leave his home and stay alone in Delhi for cricket. © Getty
The IPL bidding war for him meant he was no longer flying under the radar. The Under-19 performances were commendable but now, the expectation grew manifold even as he was only just about setting foot into his first full season of Ranji trophy. As always, the gravity of the situation did not weigh on his shoulders and his batting philosophy was evident from just the first couple of deliveries he faced in the season. On a topsy-turvy pitch in Vadodara’s Reliance stadium, Unmukt Chand had to be cautious for his 91-ball 55. The first ball Pant faced on Day 3, from offie Gokul Sharma, kept low after pitching and took the under edge of his bat but evaded Arun Karthick behind the stumps. The next ball was deposited over the straight boundary for a six. “Matter nahi karta last ball mein hua kya hai [It doesn’t matter what happened on the previous delivery],” he had said back then at the end of the day’s play. It was a boisterous outlook towards a format that’s often expected to be approached in a more traditional fashion. But it worked for him, and that was all that mattered. That six off the second ball was Pant’s first of 49 sixes he’d go on to hit that season, a tally that was 30 more than the next best (Prashant Chopra).
“I was always fond of hitting sixes, from when I was really young, and my shots would travel all the way too,” Pant says, recalling watching a peak Yuvraj Singh in full flow and being in awe as a kid. “When you hit a six, a lot of effort goes into it but when Yuvi pa batted and hit sixes, it would seem like he was hitting them effortlessly – not putting any power into it and just timing it. Watching that was very interesting, and realising that even something like this could be done.
“Watching Yuvraj hit sixes would feel good. The same thing I would see myself doing in the mirror and think ‘Yuvraj is hitting sixes so well, I can do it too’,” Pant says.
Like Yuvraj, Pant too has found the job of clearing the ropes on the full to be a very natural skill. A very organic progression, thus, has ensued for him in this aspect, as he’s gone from hitting out of the park at Sonnet to doing it at bigger cricket grounds around the world. There have been several occasions to point out this exciting aspect of his game, but the IPL fixture against Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2018 sticks out particularly. In a 48-ball 84, Pant smashed seven sixes and led RCB’s Mandeep Singh to dub him as the Yuvraj of this era. Sinha was hardly surprised, both by that knock and the comment that followed.
“He was always a power-packed player. Now with the power improving, he’s hitting longer sixes. Used to hit before as well, he’s hitting them longer now. There’s a fear that one needs to overcome, that I can hit, that’s what’s happened with Rishabh,” Sinha says.
At nearly every juncture of his blossoming career, Pant has had Sinha’s reassuring presence everytime he looked over his shoulder. That was felt more so by the player when 2018 transported him to the ultimate world of the big boys – Test cricket. The confidence that Sinha so often talks about while referring to Pant, was out in all its glories in just the second ball he faced in the format – an audacious straight six off an Adil Rashid googly.
But making the Indian team as a wicketkeeper meant he couldn’t get away with just being a good batsman. He was still going to be judged on his primary vocation – of donning the gloves behind the stumps – and that appeared to be all sorts of shaky in the three Tests he played in England. There were concerns over him being wrong-footed against the swinging ball, while byes were also conceded – sometimes not due to his error – in heaps. A century in the final Test made him one of the few takeaways in a series defeat for India – a wicketkeeper who, if groomed well, could turn games by the session a la Adam Gilchrist. More importantly, a batsman who, over the course of the next two series, showed enough signs of being versatile enough to play to the situation.
Before he’d travel for his next big away series in Australia, all roads led him back to Delhi where he trained with former India keeper Kiran More and also at Sonnet. A pertinent flaw was identified and dealt with, as he worked on his sideway movements under the guidance of Sinha. Performance and positioning improved in relatively more lenient away climes in Australia, where he’d go on to claim wicket-keeping records.
As for his batting, the four-Test series that culminated in his exceptional knock of 159 was further proof that he’s perhaps very serious about the media-trained jargon he very often offers about playing to the situation and as per the requirements of the team. And that too, had its roots in a valuable nugget of advice coming his way from Sinha. After all the starts he got in each of the six innings in the first three Tests, Ravi Shastri challenged him to make the most of his seventh one at Sydney and score a hundred. Pant went a step ahead with it, and did it after having altered his tactic against offspinner Nathan Lyon, who dismissed him four times in the first six innings.
“I spoke to him before that [Sydney hundred] as well, when he was throwing away his wicket. So I asked him why he was stepping out to Lyon. Instead play him on the backfoot, I said. He played on the backfoot and got successful,” Sinha says, revealing a hint of pride on his face.
The initial assessment of Pant would’ve suggested that he’d light up the limited-overs format at the earliest opportunity, but, as it stands, he seems to have got a better grip on the longest format. Understandable, with MS Dhoni still around and set for his fourth World Cup appearance as the first-choice wicketkeeper and the joint-leader of India’s brain trust.
Pant’s limited-overs graph is yet to take off, but representing Tests was seen as enough of a spike for him to earn a hefty central contract with the BCCI. There’s still uncertainty surrounding whether he’ll be on the plane to England as the second-choice wicketkeeper, but at 21, he doesn’t need to sweat it.
For now, cricket will take him back to where it all began – to usher in a new edition of the IPL for the rechristened Delhi Capitals, still seeking to end a barren trophy run that has stretched to eleven seasons. A year after his most successful IPL season – 684 runs in 14 matches at an average of 52.61 and a strike of 173.60 – Pant sees reason to repay the faith that was once instilled in his 19-year-old self by Daredevils.
“When I started as a youngster, Delhi gave me a chance. For a player, it’s important who gives you your first breakthrough. So for me I still remember that, because at the age of 19 if someone is playing me in games, it isn’t easy. Because of the kind of competition these days. If someone gives you a chance, you should be thankful to them.
“The kind of confidence the people of Delhi have showed in me… I’ve always said that for any player to be a good one, it is important to give him confidence. The way the Delhi team management gave me confidence, that will pay off slowly.”
“When they keep you like a family, the performance shows. There’s a connection, which helps,” Pant says.