Being Rishabh Pant: Ignore Purists, It’s Rebels Who Change The World

Maverick, crazy, unorthodox, idiosyncratic, nonconformist…Experts have dug into the dictionary to capture Rishabh Pant in a word but the perfect choice appears elusive. Subtler expressions such as graceful, elegant and sublime don’t quite square with the signature on-pitch arrogance of the wicketkeeper-batsman. If they do surface, it’s mostly on the sly, apologetic manner. We are not comfortable with clubbing a hammer with grace or bulldozer with elegance. Not yet. But Rishabh may soon force new alliances of words with a style that is entirely his own.

He has not been around for long, at least not long enough by conventional standards to be slotted into a fixed description, or any hierarchy of greatness, but he has stamped his presence with such authority that it is forcing a rethink of the conventional standards of judging a sports icon. Of late he has been compared to greats such as Adam Gilchrist, MS Dhoni and Kumar Sangakkara. That’s not only a great compliment to his ability with the bat, but also endorsement of the new approach to Test cricket of which he appears to have become the brand ambassador. Test cricket, going by the new approach, need not be a dull, morose five-day affair akin to weekday office routine of government servants; it can be a high-octane rewarding experience for cricket lovers.

England skipper Ben Stokes made clear as much in his appreciation of Rishabh at the conclusion of the Test match at Edgbaston a few days ago. Red-ball cricket, he said, needs more players like Rishabh because they can save this format from extinction. “The more we see players like that succeed in the way that they want to do, the negativity around that way of playing Test cricket will eventually die out because it’s so exciting to watch,” he was quoted as saying. Coming from a player who is a die-hard practitioner of result-oriented entertaining cricket, it’s worth being noted.

Comparison is basically a nonsensical exercise invented, somewhat maliciously, to rank people as inferior or superior. It is oblivious to context or the sense of time. Statistics is a bland tool with no capacity for judging either. Rishabh cannot be compared to Dhoni or Gilchrist not just because they are different personalities belonging to different times but also the uniqueness of their brand of batsmanship. Dhoni could play the waiting game with the stoic indifference of a monk, while patience is not exactly a virtue with his younger counterpart. Dhoni was a more accomplished wicket-keeper while Pant is yet to be acknowledged as someone of the same league. Gilchrist made aggression in batting trendy, Rishabh has made it routine. Gilchrist even when in the murderous mood appeared organised; the latter rarely so.

It’s possible there’s a method to Rishabh’s madness. But a set pattern or recognisable template is yet to be visible. You can never anticipate what he would do to the first ball he faces or how he would behave six runs away from a century. You cannot predict whether or when he will play switch-hit to the mighty James Anderson. This unpredictability is perhaps his trademark; this is what sets him apart from Gilchrist, Dhoni or Sangakkara, all wicket-keeper-batters. Crazy, maverick and such words don’t sit well on the latter while they assume unusual dignity and respectability in the case of Rishabh.

It’s obvious that purists would scoff at his unpredictability, demand more discipline from him and expect him to be a normal cricketer. We have heard this enough from greats of another time in recent times besides calls to drop him from the playing XI for his ‘irresponsible’ approach to the game. What escapes them is being normal is a mental construct with limitations. It is averse to innovation and adventure, and risk-taking. In the Edgbaston Test, where normal batters with supposedly sound technique failed to negotiate the swing and bounce of English bowlers, Rishabh was in a different zone altogether. His combative knocks in both innings, laced liberally with the characteristic irreverence to the reputation of bowlers, would count as deviance. But then purists and conformists never changed the world, it has always been the handiwork of rebels and deviants. It is interesting, however, that the most purist among purists, Rahul Dravid, would back Rishabh to the hilt.

Rishabh Pant imports elements of T-20 cricket to Tests in copious quantity. It would be wise to view it from the perspective of evolution of Test cricket. The popularisation of one-dayers was instrumental in breaking the dourness of Tests to a great degree. The likes of Virendra Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist were the deviants then. The fact that the five-day format witnessed more results than draws during those days was the result of a fresh approach from certain players. Twenty-20 cricket is taking the evolution forward. The likes of Rishabh are certain to improve the thrill quotient of the game. The mavericks of today may become the new normal soon.

So forget the futile quest for the right word for Rishabh, just welcome the freshness he brings to cricket.

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