The last home T20I series India did not win was in September 2019. In a pre-pandemic world, a three-match series was squared after one match was washed out. South Africa were the opponents. The Proteas will face off again in Bengaluru on Sunday to halt India’s resurgence in the series and bid to extend an envious record of seven straight home series wins. But these bilateral trophies count for little unless they culminate in a World Cup triumph.
India haven’t won silverware in the game’s busiest format since 2007 despite running the world’s most successful franchise league. To set the record straight, India are trying to adopt a more aggressive batting approach.
With Rohit Sharma having led the players who have already reached England ahead of the final Test that was postponed last year, Rishabh Pant is defending the series, the record, and his own reputation as a batter. Bowlers fear Pant in whites batting at No 6 as he can swing the match in a session. In T20I blues though Pant is in a battle of his own.
Resurrecting Pant’s T20I trajectory has to be coach Rahul Dravid’s primary focus for now. India would not want to miss out on his maverick genius in a format that should suit him the most. But it hasn’t panned out that way. Pant averages 40 plus with a strike rate of 70 in Tests, which makes him a rare breed. His T20I numbers (47 games, 740 runs, avg 23.12, S/R 123.95) though is piling on the agony.
In the ongoing series, South Africa bowlers have been all over him. All his dismissals have been chasing wide deliveries outside off. Pant’s one-handed pyrotechnics are known to all. But every time, the visitors have dried up his runs and drawn him into a false stroke. Twice Pant has fallen to Keshav Maharaj’s left-arm spin. “There are plans (against Pant) in place,” Maharaj said on Friday, stressing that the plan was not hard and fast. “But it’s also… feel of the day. Obviously, the last couple of wickets have been very slow.”
The dismissals have left Pant and the Indian think tank searching for answers. He had a long net session under Dravid’s watchful eyes before the Rajkot match, constantly discussing scoring options. “As an individual, I can look to improve in certain areas. But I am not thinking too much. I am just taking positives from each match,” Pant said on Friday.
Pant’s batting problems in this series may be technical, but the slayer of bowling attacks in Tests is yet to master that in T20 cricket. The general advice he receives is to let his attacking instincts prevail. Former India coach Ravi Shastri wants him to bat like Andre Russell, like there is no tomorrow. It’s an approach Pant did try to adopt in IPL. The breakdown of his average strike rate for the first 10, 15, 20 and 25 balls faced in an innings reads 141, 151, 159 and 155. But in his 340 runs in 14 matches, Pant could never reach a fifty. An Indian team spoilt for choices, requires more.
“It’s evident that Rishabh likes to take his chances. When you are taking those extreme decisions and when they come off, they look brilliant. When they don’t, they look equally bad,” former India pacer Zaheer Khan told Cricbuzz. “It’s about finding the right balance. When he plays those brilliant innings with his shots, it’s because of his thinking and the way he approaches the game. At the same time, you see some of his dismissals and ask what was he thinking? At times you need to let the person be. You also need some characters to look at the game differently.”
India have some time to let Pant find his batting tempo. But they need him the most only for batting. For leadership, there are many sound heads. After Sharma and KL Rahul, Hardik Pandya too can add value with inputs. Glovework isn’t considered the most required skill in T20 cricket anyway, and India have many options. Dinesh Karthik seems to have booked an early ticket to Australia for the T20 World Cup. Ishan Kishan is pushing for a top order berth. KL Rahul when back can keep. Sanju Samson will be a dark horse for Australian pitches.
The top order is crowded. Karthik, Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja take care of the lower-middle order. Pant needs to become India’s best middle-order pick. For that he needs to stay on top of the bowlers. He is not having the best of times. His chatter from behind the stumps has been muted, perhaps due to pressure as captain—in IPL and India. Some of his tactical errors were central to Delhi Capitals’ failure.
Given India’s quality, there’s a good chance the Pant-led India will win the decider to keep their home record intact. Even if Pant gets to hold the winners’ trophy on Sunday, real joy will show in his face only if he had wreaked havoc with the bat.