It was the kind of innings budding teenage cricketers play in their dreams and fantasies. Watching Rishabh Pant bat on the treacherous Newlands pitch on Thursday was a surreal experience even for this columnist, seasoned by following Test cricket for over four decades. It seemed so unreal! One had to pinch himself and ask at regular intervals; "Is this really happening or am I day dreaming?"
But it was happening for sure, wasn't it? Right in front of us, on our television screens. Here was a boy, just stepping into manhood, batting with utter nonchalance against Rabada & Co at their menacing best, hitting them all over the park and - tellingly - scoring at almost a run a ball on a pitch where other batsmen, including the great Virat Kohli, one of the finest batters the world has seen, found it extremely hard to just survive. It was as if he was batting on an altogether different pitch or the demons in the pitch that tormented all other batters bowed out from the scene in reverence as soon he took strike!!
And all this after India had lost overnight batter Cheteshwar Pujara, caught on the leg side for the umpteenth time, and the struggling Ajinkya Rahane within the first two overs of the day - both to steeply bouncing balls. But when the pumped up Rabada tried the same against him, this pocket dynamo pulled him to the square leg boundary for four with utter disdain. During the fairly long partnership - by the standards of this mean, misrely series, that is - between him and Kohli, I asked myself, repeatedly; "If a wicket were to fall now, who it should be?" For all my love for the batting of King Kohli, the answer each time was, "Kohli".
Rishabh is that kind of cricketer. Even when you think you have seen it all, he produces something you haven't really seen in all your years of watching cricket. How many batters have tonked the first ball they received in Test cricket for a huge six? Or taken their team to the brink of a near impossible victory with an audacious 125 in only his second? Or reverse swatted someone like Jimmy Anderson for a six? It seems there is nothing this lad cannot do on a cricket field. And no matter what the situation of the match, you always have a sneaking belief that he can pull it off single-handedly. After he conquered 'Gabbatoir', we knew we had a real match winner in our team. We have had the Kohlis and the Rohit Sharmas, who have gone on and conquered the world. But not since Virender Sehwag did we have a player who electrifies the stadium (such a shame there were no fans watching his exploits on the ground on Thursday!) and give millions of fans the belief that they can win a match for their team from the most hopeless of situations.
A bit of stats (what is cricket without them, after all?) would put Rishabh’s masterclass at Newlands in perspective. It was the first century by an Indian batter in a team total of below 200 and the first by anyone batting at six or lower. It was second in the all-time list of innings by Indian batters who scored the maximum percentage of runs in the team total (58.82%), next only to an incredible 62.32% (129 out of 207) by the great Kapil Dev against the same opponent in 1991-92. Like the Haryana Hurricane, Rishabh would, every now and then, play a horrendous shot and get out cheaply – as he did with that ugly charge against Rabada in Jo’burg. But when they come good - as Rishabh did at Newlands and Kapil on innumerable occasions during his career, including that dream innings of 175 against Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup - goodness me! they are absolute world beaters!!
Rishabh is good enough to cement his place in the team purely as a batter. But his wicket keeping, a bit of concern at the beginning of his career, has improved by leaps and bounds over the years. That makes him the kind of invaluable player any team would stake its last penny to have in its ranks.
Rishabh certainly is a once-in-a-generation cricketer.
After the innings he played yesterday, it would be a shame if India end up on the losing side. But even if India lose the Test - and with it the series – it will remain etched in memory as one of the best innings played by an Indian batter, comparable in its importance to Gundappa Vishanath’s 97 at Chepauk against Andy Roberts & Co in 1975. At least for this diehard Test cricket fan!
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)
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