Rishabh Pant © AFP
Rishabh Pant © AFP

Target 209. Delhi Daredevils were 24 for 1 in the third over. Rishabh Pant partnered Sanju Samson at the crease. Pant’s message to his senior partner was clear, “Bhaiya zyada socho mat, bas maro (Bro, don’t think much, just hit).” Thus began the mayhem. A partnership of 143 from just 63 balls captivated all and sundry. That said, it was Pant’s magnificent 97 off 43 that steered Delhi to a comprehensive win over Gujarat Lions, keeping their chances for playoffs qualification alive.

What followed was adulation from every corner. First, the opponent skipper Suresh Raina hugged the disappointed teenager and consoled him. Such rare exhibition of sportsmanship only strengthens the bond between the fan and sport.

Dale Steyn coined it ‘crazy clean-hitting’. Rohit Sharma hailed the knock for its intrepidness. Pant’s mentor Rahul Dravid was overwhelmed for the selflessness. Sachin Tendulkar placed more weight on the praises when he called it, ‘One of the best Innings I have seen in the IPL & that includes all 10 seasons.” The master says so. Period.

Pant’s enthralling feats with the bat has taken the cricket world by delight. A fewer lot have been luckier who have been witnessing the young gun since preteen days. One of them happens to be another Tarik Sinha student — Subodh Bhati, an important part of the Delhi domestic cricket.

Bhati, who recently played under the leadership of Pant in Vijay Hazare Trophy, has known the latter since he was 11 or 12 and considers the prodigy his ‘younger brother’.

“We were together at the academy in Rajasthan. He must have been 11 or 12 since I know him. He has always been like my younger brother. He was so good that he played with senior boys. His playing style never changed,” said Bhati.

Pant represented Rajasthan at Under 14 and Under 16 levels, and was later thrown out of the academy for being an ‘outsider’ or let us say for being a Sinha-aid. He, too, got tangled in board politics. Regardless, can talent be hidden for long?

Rajasthan’s loss proved to be Delhi’s gain.

“Pant was very young then. What happened there [Rajasthan] was unfortunate and I did not understand why it had to happen? Being termed ‘outsiders’ hurt. We were there to just play cricket,” recalled the 26-year-old.

Bhati was not one bit surprised with Pant’s knock on Thursday. He believes those who have watched Pant play on a regular basis know what kind of damage he can inflict.

“Like I said before, his playing style never changed. He does not believe in shifting gears, in fact has only one gear, the top gear. His batting is like, every ball is there to be scored. If you are an aggressive batsman more often the coaches interfere in your style, but no one does that when Pant bats because he gets runs. I should not be saying this, but I have seen Pant enough to state that his batting is on par with several who play in the national side. Sometimes his batting gives more joy than theirs,” Bhati exclaimed.

Pant himself backs the above words. “If the ball is there to be hit, just hit it. Don’t think about the next ball, and if the next ball is there to be hit again, then hit it again,” Pant formulated his brand of cricket post his heroics.

His batting is not about slogging. You do not score a First-Class triple-ton in that mode. Pant belongs to a rare breed of immensely confident ones.

“We thought over the several age groups he will change his style, but that never happened. In Under-19 cricket, I thought his ‘hit the ball’ style would change. When that did not happen, I thought First-Class cricket would mould him perhaps. But then he is a special talent and I am lucky that as a bowler I play alongside him more often. He is supremely confident, has mental strength and backs himself tremendously. That is his strength,” said Bhati, who made his First-Class debut for Delhi in 2015-16 season, just a game after Pant did.

Dissecting Pant’s approach in a line or two, his basic strength lies in reading the line and length of ball before the incredible bat swing takes precedence. He has his zone. Pitch it there, and it will disappear. Then comes the mental bit, like Bhati said, the self-belief and the confidence is a separator.

The gifted bit here is the ability to pick the ball from the hand and that is what segregates the greats from the goods. In contrast, Samson’s batting was all about hitting it straight and having an array of strokes for a single ball.

Mental strength, yes

Pant lived in Moti Bagh Gurudwara with his mother when he had come to play cricket in Delhi. He had no other place to live. His mother served at the holy place while the son hammered runs in Under-12 circuit.

His father passed away last month. DD’s Hemant Dua told Hindustan Times, “We just didn’t have the courage to say anything to him, but we told him to take whatever time he wanted. After all, it is a huge loss in one’s life.”

His mother had undergone a major surgery. His father had just passed away. As a professional, he decided not to take any break from IPL. His family and coaches stood by him. His franchise supported him, and two days after cremating his father, the man who dreamt big for his son and shaped the way, Pant slammed 57 against Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), a special knock that almost won the game for DD.

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Three more runs that night and Pant would have been IPL’s youngest centurion. Bhati affirms that chasing milestones is not Pant’s style. He wanted to finish it for DD and the disappointment was apparent.

“He deserved the ton but that is not style. I switched off the television as soon as Rishabh Pant got out. I was gutted.” There is sombreness in Bhati’s tone as he adds, “Usually when my friends, like Pant, Nitish Rana or Pawan Negi, are out of action, I switch it off. I may not have got a chance to play IPL this season, but I want these guys to do really well. I derive happiness from their outings.”

Bhati is one of Delhi’s fresh young talents. With his medium pace, he made headlines with fine shows in Vijay Hazare Trophy in 2015-16. A bowling average of 26.20 from 2 First-Class games and 16.86 from 12 List A, Bhati was second time unlucky in IPL auctions this year. With an economy rate of 3.84 in List A cricket, beyond a doubt, he would have added a lot of value to any IPL franchise. And just to clarify, he bowls mainly in the Powerplays or death.

The Modinagar-based all-rounder, who started his journey with tennis-ball mohallah cricket, hopes that luck will shine on him too and he will get to play in IPL some day…

But this is about Pant, a teenager he considers his younger brother…

‘A future captain’

Despite a good Ranji Trophy season, Pant did not do much in Vijay Hazare Trophy where he also led Delhi, a team that had stalwarts such as Gautam Gambhir, Shikhar Dhawan and Ashish Nehra. Bhati played 3 games under him and was very impressed with what he experienced.

“I had never seen him captain before, but I knew he read the game well. I was very impressed with what I saw. He welcomed inputs from Gambhir-bhaiya, Shikhar-bhaiya. The seniors reciprocate the respect he shows them and everyone backs him. In a short captaincy career, he has developed a style and he seems to enjoy it. He is a superstar and mark my words he will go on to lead India,” Bhati asserts.

Bhati, like many, joined the chorus of quick escalation of Pant in the national side and does not believe the wait-and-watch method will help either party. He also threw light on Pant’s wicketkeeping skills which usually is overshadowed by his batting.

“If he does not play for India now, then when will he? Look at the way he is batting? There were questions raised earlier over his keeping skills, but he has shown improvement every passing day. To me, he is an excellent wicketkeeper. Earlier, he was chubby but over the time he has worked a lot of his fitness. As he kept graduating to higher levels, his fitness regime became more serious. He has kept wickets from the time I know him and that comes naturally to him. He is a ready product and should play for India,” concluded Bhati.

While MS Dhoni is at the twilight of a glorious career, Wriddhiman Saha too is approaching mid-30s. The national selectors have already begun monitoring Pant’s progress, and it should not come as a surprise if he makes it to the Indian squad for ICC Champions Trophy 2017.

For now, DD will hope from the Pant-pyrotechnic to continue as they still eye a spot in the IPL 2017 final.