Air of anticipation as Rishabh Pant prepares to take guard again

There are so many things Rishabh Pant knows he has to be thankful for. Sixteen months ago, the fact that his career might be over seemed a minor issue at the time. He had survived a ghastly car accident, and as he said later, he thought his “time in this world was over.”

He didn’t have a fracture, but he had torn all the ligaments in his knee which finished at a right angle to his hip while he landed face down. Each one had to be replaced. The what-might-have-beens are too frightening to speculate about. His recovery was steady (and must have been painful too), and he kept everybody’s spirits up as he learnt to walk again, sending out social media messages of hope and cheer.

“I didn’t think I would ever enjoy brushing my teeth,” he said in an interview.

Yet the idea that he would be playing serious cricket in less than 15 months would have sounded bizarre then. Which is why despite the presence of some new stars and plenty of old ones, the IPL for many around the world will be about one man — Rishabh Pant. He will lead Delhi Capitals and keep wickets beside playing what Rohit Sharma has called ‘Rishball’ cricket.

Teammates and opponents as well as spectators would be happy to give him time to ease into the many roles. Sunil Gavaskar has said the injured knee means Pant may not hit the ground running (so to speak), sensibly advising impatient fans that the player will need time and we ought to grant him that. Watching any player return from injury sustained in a match is both heartening and fraught. Watching a favourite return after what happened will be life-affirming.

His greatest advantage, besides his courage and determination, is his age. He is only 26 after all those centuries and sixes and catching and chatter from behind the stumps. The cricket board secretary has said that if he keeps wickets he will be back in the Indian team for the T20 World Cup in June this year. I am not sure if it is the official’s place to make such promises (teams are chosen by a selection committee), but the sentiment is understandable.

Special player

Pant is a special player and needs special treatment. Some of the strokes we see Indian batters play with such flair today were first essayed by Pant. What was seen as audacious, mischievous, even insolent when he played it is commonplace now. When he reverse swept Jimmy Anderson and the new ball above the head of the slip fielders, time stood still for a moment to allow us to absorb that moment.

His batting was seen as India’s media were at one time: free and fearless. It didn’t matter if he were in the nineties; caution was an insult to his batsmanship, landmarks were meant to be incidental, not the focus. It meant he had more 90s than 100s in Test cricket.

Watching the new breed of young Indian batters from Yashasvi Jaiswal to Dhruv Jurel, it is not difficult to trace the line that began with Pant who started his Test career by hitting the second ball he faced for a six. This, in Nottingham on the 2018 tour.

Pant quickly built a reputation for banter from behind the stumps, often having his target join in the laughter too. When Tim Paine, his counterpart in Australia, asked him to babysit his children, Pant responded by having himself photographed carrying the kids (at a reception). Paine’s wife called him “the best babysitter”.

My favourite Pant quip came at an end-of-the match interview when Harsha Bhogle joked that Pant’s ‘commentary’ from behind the stumps might soon leave the professional commentator out of a job. Without missing a beat, Pant responded, “Then you must improve.” Bhogle probably laughed the loudest.

The return of Rishabh Rajendra Pant to his natural habitat is being awaited with all the keenness and anticipation the sight of him emerging from the pavilion evokes. That he has already come this far is a tribute to his spirit. The IPL has not been about one individual or one comeback. But this year it is, as Pant takes fresh guard.

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