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Rishabh Pant: Unrepressed, entertaining, authentic

March 15, 2019 09:38 IST

'I just go out there and do my thing; try to express myself. I'm glad people enjoy it,' Rishabh Pant tells Dhruv Munjal.

IMAGE: Rishabh Pant at the Vidarbha Cricket Association ground in Nagpur, March 4, 2019. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Rishabh Pant can't recall the perfume he's wearing. I put forth the peculiar enquiry simply because the fragrance is every bit as attractive as the man's cricket. "Hermes," he eventually concedes, somewhat embarrassed.

Pant has, of course, been revelling in the sweet smell of success. A month ago, he was one of the catalysts for India's first-ever Test series win in Australia -- with 350 enormously important runs (more than Virat Kohli) and 20 dismissals behind the stumps.

All this from a 21 year old against a country that is probably the toughest touring destination on earth, and that too in a format where his trademark belligerence and callowness could have been impediments to sustained success.

But then springing a surprise is Pant's thing.

Face to face with him, you realise how big he is -- it's the kind of astonishing burliness that television cameras fail to capture.

He has boulder-like shoulders and oak-tree arms. Pant may have been visibly overweight till a few years ago, but this is a strapping frame seemingly born out of a lifetime spent in the gym.

A glorious version of Matthew Hayden meeting Mike Tyson.

 

IMAGE: Rishabh Pant became the first Indian wicket-keeper to score a century in Australia. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Coming back to Australia, Pant downplays his role -- he also became the first Indian wicket-keeper batsman to score a hundred Down Under -- and credits the rare victory to team unity and a hunger to succeed.

"Everyone wanted to play for each other. There were no personal goals. When you have that mindset, great things happen."

Such maturity belies Pant's age. And in conversation, he displays a humility you'd hardly expect from a celebrated player well on his way to becoming a superstar.

It's the kind of simple innocence that makes you instantly like him. Almost all sentences are suffixed with "bhaiyya" and no answer betrays the egotism that often accompanies rapid success such as his.

At the same time, Pant knows he has arrived. In a celebrity cliche of sorts, he makes me wait before we can sit down to chat.

He is getting ready, I'm told. When he finally makes his way to the front lawn of his house in Delhi's tony Vasant Vihar neighbourhood, he looks anything but "ready".

Dressed in a black hoodie, blue shorts and flip-flops, Pant looks set more for a leisurely afternoon stroll than a sit-down interview.

But this very casualness is also what makes him tick. Staying true to his style, he bats with the carefree abandon of a player who has nothing to lose or prove.

IMAGE: A stellar showing in the IPL could convince the selectors to include Pant in the Indian team for the World Cup. Photograph: BCCI

His impressive showings in Test cricket -- an average of almost 50 in 9 matches -- are the result of a tendency to treat every ball on its merit.

"Virat bhaiyya keeps telling me that the format doesn't matter. I see the ball and I go after it if it's there to be hit," says Pant, running his fingers through his thick mop of streaked hair every once in a while.

He makes it sound much easier than it is, of course. Anybody who has played the game at any reputable level will tell you that an uncluttered mind can very easily give way to a muddled one when confronted with a different format, challenging conditions and a bowling attack as formidable as Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon.

"There are two things here: One, you should only worry about the ball, not the bowler; and two, never plan a shot in advance. I just don't believe in that," explains Pant.

IMAGE: Rishabh Pant and M S Dhoni celebrate winning game two of the T20 Series against New Zealand at Eden Park, Auckland, February 8, 2019. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

This Virender Sehwag-inspired, Zen master-like attitude to batting has turned Pant into one of the most exciting batting prospects around.

He stands like Saeed Anwar and swings like Yuvraj Singh, with a dash of Suresh Raina thrown in for good measure -- an imperious blend of style, timing and power.

Pant's ability to assert himself against the opposition may have been a dominant theme in his career thus far, but it has also brought with it brickbats -- criticism that he embraces but refuses to take to heart.

In Adelaide, for instance, he was chastised for going after Lyon -- and recklessly throwing his wicket away -- despite already having taken 18 off the off-spinner's previous over.

"The team wanted me to get quick runs and I tried to do that. I just played the situation," he says. "When you start analysing too much, you lose your spontaneity."

His hundred in Sydney, on the other hand, was more measured: Controlled aggression that acted as an ideal foil for the ceaseless obduracy of Cheteshwar Pujara at the other end.

Dissecting Pant's batting brain, which is seemingly straightforward yet not fully decipherable, would make for a genuinely compelling university research paper.

IMAGE: Rishabh Pant is congratulated by Ravindra Jadeja after reaching his century in Australia. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Kohli, with whom -- as Twitter frequently tells us -- Pant spends much of his time on tour, is clearly in sync with the youngster's methods.

Moreover, Pant espouses the pugnacious all-or-nothing approach that the captain himself swears by.

Kohli, Pant adds, is from where Indian cricket draws all its confidence. "His hard work, his work ethic, lead the way. He is the first person in the gym and the last out of it. If he can do it despite being such a legend, we can too. That he fully backs players like me is why Indian cricket is such a force today."

Even though Pant describes his maiden Test hundred against England at The Oval last year as his favourite knock, perhaps his most memorable innings was in 2017 for the Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League.

The 97 he scored against the Gujarat Lions was as much a sterling example of frightening ball-striking as it was a display of tremendous courage by a bereaved teenager who had lost his father just days earlier.

Pant Sr never quite saw his son take apart some of the finest bowling attacks in the world, but he was a constant witness to the onerous journey to becoming a top professional cricketer.

"Since I was 10 or 11, all I remember is talking to him about cricket," says Pant.

IMAGE: Rishabh Pant speaks to Virat Kohli on day four of the second Test against Australia at the Perth Stadium, December 17, 2018. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

When a 14-year-old Pant arrived in Delhi from Roorkee, the family had no place to stay and often had to spend nights at the Moti Bagh gurdwara, a short distance from Sri Venkateswara College where he starting training under Coach Tarak Sinha at the Sonnet Cricket Club.

Travel back home was frequent and difficult in those days, and Pant remembers spending a lot of time on cramped interstate buses.

That is perhaps why among the first things he did after bagging his first IPL contract in 2016 was buy a car.

An unabashed auto enthusiast, he has bought a few more since. His latest set of wheels, a gorgeous yellow Ford Mustang parked in his driveway, is quite the eye-catcher in the neighbourhood.

"I played a lot of my early cricket in Haridwar and Dehradun. But I just had to come to Delhi if I had to make a career out of it," he says. "As for the grind, if you don't struggle, you'll never value success. And it's always better to struggle early in life than later on."

IMAGE: Rishabh Pant with Isha Negi, his soul mate.

When I spoke to Sinha after Pant's breakthrough IPL season in 2017, the highly respected coach who also played a stellar role in Shikhar Dhawan's rise to the national ranks told me that city life toughened Pant up, acquainting him with challenges he had to toil against.

"He very quickly understood that life in Delhi is hard. So it was a learning curve for him both on the cricket field and off it. He succeeded in both."

Sinha still watches all of Pant's games, and his famous student makes sure he goes back to him for advice.

"I talk to him after almost every game. He was the one who urged me to make Test cricket my goal. For me, there is only one coach," says Pant.

 

WATCH: Bharat Army sing praises of Rishabh Pant. Video: Kind courtesy, Bharat Army/Twitter

Call it an embarrassment of riches or the quest to find the right balance, but it is quite an absurdity that Pant, whose game is so evidently suited to the shorter formats, is still only a bit player in limited overs cricket for India.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni remains the undisputed number one in the wicket-keeping department, but there have been calls from fans and former players to play Pant as a pure batsman in ODIs.

Undoubtedly, Pant's explosiveness down the order can offer India the finishing kick it has lacked in recent times.

Moreover, fans seem to have taken to Pant with such fondness because he's forever putting on a show.

From unusual acrobatic warmup drills to performing kip-ups during drinks breaks -- he also has a bit of a gymnastics background -- to dancing for the crowds, Pant is everything fans adore: Unrepressed, entertaining, authentic.

"I just go out there and do my thing; try to express myself. I'm glad people enjoy it," he says.

As for his routine omission from the ODI squad, Pant remains unfazed. "No point thinking about the future too much. Live in the moment; make the most of any opportunity that comes your way."

Pant grew up idolising Australian wicket-keeper Adam Gilchrist, and now works closely with Dhoni -- two legendary stumpers, one who made him dream and the other who is helping further that dream.

"My bond with Mahi bhai is very special. He is very hands-on. Batting or wicket-keeping, you can go up to him any time," he says.

Dhoni's presence is significant since Pant's wicket-keeping is still a major work in progress -- some rudimentary errors have threatened to cause notable damage in the past.

Where he definitely did not slip up in Australia while keeping wickets was in the sledging stakes.

Continually chirping away, Pant won himself quite a few admirers for his own commentary stints in the middle.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Bonnie Paine/ Instagram

And when Australian captain Tim Paine returned the favour, by asking him to babysit his kids, Pant happily obliged, posing with his wife and kids at an event in Sydney on New Year's Day.

"Actually, it was his mother who first came up to me, wondering if I was the guy who had been sledging her son. Then the picture happened. It was a lot of fun," he recalls. "But I genuinely think that all the chirp worked. It put them off."

With greater fame, getting clicked is not something Pant always enjoys. Pictures and autographs can get tedious sometimes, he admits.

He often retires to the comfort of his hotel room, where stacks of his favourite perfume bottles and sunglasses keep him company. "When everybody recognises you, going out is difficult. But you deal with it," he says.

Expectedly, like so many fierce bowlers before, this new-found popularity is unlikely to get to Pant. "There is nothing called pressure. I understand that there is expectation, but if there is any pressure, I don't feel it."

Dhruv Munjal
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