Thursday, April 25, 2024

IPL 2024: Rishabh Pant shows glimpses of his old self in composed comeback to competitive cricket


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Shillong, March 24: The spotlight in the lead-up to Punjab Kings and Delhi Capitals clash at the Maharaja Yadavindra Singh International Cricket Stadium on Saturday was firmly fixed on one man: Rishabh Pant and how he would fare on his return to competitive cricket after 14 months and 28 days.

The pull of Pant’s much-awaited return to cricket after recovering from injuries following a life-threatening car accident in December 2022 was such that a huge number of fans in attendance at Mullanpur came from New Delhi, apart from nearby places in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and Haryana.

The eager fans awaiting to see a glimpse of Pant on the field sported jerseys with his name and numbers ranging from 17 to 777, had to brace some challenges. They stood through the afternoon heat and survived illogical security arrangements which saw them reach the stadium via dangerous kacha roads of the villages.

If that wasn’t enough, they even had to walk a few kilometres to reach the stadium gates after parking their vehicles in the makeshift parking space, which is originally agricultural fields. The fans got their moment of sighting when Pant indulged in some drills and arrived at the toss, making for a life-affirming, emotional and magical sight of him looking fully fit and walking with ease.

He got gentle handshakes from commentator Daren Ganga and PBKS captain Shikhar Dhawan before the toss began. Though the toss didn’t fall in Pant’s favour, he got good cheers from the crowd when his turn to speak to Ganga came. “It is a really emotional time for me. I just want to enjoy every moment on the field. Looking forward to my first match back.”

Dhawan opted to bowl first, which meant DC would bat first and team sheet showed Pant slotted in at number four, with the star of captain and plus sign of wicketkeeper against his name, a moment which many waited for with bated breath and tears of joy filling up the eyes.

When Harshal Patel dismissed David Warner with a slower bouncer in the eighth over, the review took its own sweet time to determine the batter was out. But the crowd, especially the ones seated at the top and had no roof to save themselves from the heat, had already started to cheer.

The cheers from the crowd was not for Harshal taking out Warner, but it was for the next batter who was ready to walk in to the field at 4:06pm, the cynosure of everyone’s eyes in the match – Rishabh Pant.

As Pant started to walk towards the middle, he looked upwards to the sun for a very brief time and began his walk to join Shai Hope at the crease.

When the stadium announcer introduced Pant as the next batter on the public address system, the more than half-full crowd in the stadium stood up to clap with a wholesome cheer. Pant fist-pumped with Hope and was down on his knees for some time before doing a warm-up of running between the wickets to finalise his prep himself for a moment he and everyone in the cricketing ecosystem waited for so long – of being back at the cricket.

The first ball on return he faced from left-arm spinner Harpreet Brar, Pant went down on his right knee for attempting a cut on an angled away delivery but didn’t get desired connection as he found the fielder at point.

On his second ball, Pant clipped past midwicket for a single to be off the mark. Coming back after a long time, it was understandable that caution was the need of the hour when Pant refused to take twos twice in his first six deliveries.

At four, Pant pulled a short ball from leg-spinner Rahul Chahar, who earlier beat the left-hander on flight, towards deep mid-wicket, where Harshal Patel made a mess of a catching chance to give him his first boundary.

He wowed the crowd by piercing the gap between mid-off and cover with a picture-perfect extra-cover drive on a half-volley from Patel, with no one moving from their positions on the field and fans rejoicing in seeing a delightful shot from their man of the moment.

Pant’s return was cut on his 13th ball when he tried to ramp Harshal over the keeper, but the slower ball angled in to the bod gave him no pace for the shot and ended up lobbing the catch to backward point, falling for 18 in 23 minutes of being back in his native environment.

Pant made the way back to the dressing room by hitting his pads with the bat, furious over missing out on a chance to do something special on return. Visuals later showed head coach Ricky Ponting trying to calm down his visibly sad captain, who even did a hand-punch out of frustration.

After DC made 174/9, Pant had to face another litmus test: of keeping and leading his team, especially after losing Ishant Sharma in the sixth over. Having been declared fit as wicketkeeper, the other concern around Pant was how he would fare as a keeper, especially in moving sideways.

To everyone’s delight, Pant didn’t look troubled in his keeping whether it was against fast-bowlers or spinners. Though he didn’t collect the ball properly to have Jitesh Sharma stumped while standing up to the gentle medium-pace of Sumit Kumar, Pant would make amends when the batter shaped for a reverse-sweep against Kuldeep.

He collected the ball in a stretching low position and whipped off the bails in a jiffy when Jitesh was out of crease. Pant pointed to the square-leg umpire that the batter didn’t have his back leg behind in time, which the replays showed in exact same way, with a smile on his face as the big screen showed ‘Out’.

In between, Pant the captain was motivating his side in the huddle at strategic time-outs and oversaw sending out typical chirpy messages from behind the stumps. For example, when Kuldeep was having a crack at Sam Curran and Prabhsimran Singh, Pant would motivate him by saying, ‘Lamba maarne de usko’ (allow him to hit long), followed by ‘theek daal raha hain, khul-ke daal’ (you are bowling fine. Bowl with a free mind).

Even when Prabhsimran showed signs of aggression, Pant urged Kuldeep to be calm from behind. “Daalta rahe, tu hi hai, milega (just keep bowling, you will get his wicket). His words came true as Kuldeep had Prabhsimran holing out in the deep.

He would be swift in moving fielders quickly, was on ears with bowlers like Mitchell Marsh, would complete the catch of Shashank Singh in the 19th over by Khaleel Ahmed and even had some words of motivation for Sumit, tasked to bowl the final over in his IPL debut, though DC ended up on the losing side.

After the game ended, Pant admitted to the broadcasters about being nervous on his return to cricket, evident from him trying too many shots in the start of his batting innings. His focus, though, was of DC being a bowler short in defence of 174 after Ishant’s ankle injury.

“Personally, I was pretty nervous, but you have to go through this when you enter the field.” But this isn’t the first time you’re feeling nervous. Happy about (returning to the game) but at the same time, I think we had a par score but because we were one bowler short, because of Ishant’s injury, but can’t do much about it,” he said.

In the post-match press conference, PBKS left-arm pacer Arshdeep Singh welcomed Pant’s return to the field. “It felt extremely great as he has made a very good comeback to the game. It felt really good to see him come after putting in the hard yards mentally as well as physically. It’s never easy to come back after such a big injury.

“I loved the way crowd welcomed him and felt very nice over him getting proper support from the spectators. It also felt great that he didn’t make much runs against us (saying in jest), but wishing him a lot of luck and lots of runs in this season,” said Arshdeep.

Pravin Amre, DC’s assistant coach, conceded that Pant walking out to bat led to some emotional scenes for the support staff in what was his composed comeback to the game. “As coaches we don’t get emotional but this one was emotional. To me it was special because I have seen him, the first year of Rishabh Pant (in this franchise) and his journey for DC. I know how much the team missed him last year.

“We’re happy with the way he conducted himself and credit to him because it’s not that easy to come back after 14 months and handling that pressure. I think he’s the guy who likes to take the pressure on. He wants to go out there and deliver with his keeping and batting. So, it was basically really good to see him back on the field.

“Mostly, words are just not there. Going and just tapping his back (before the game), that shows what we feel because so many times you don’t need to express the words that we are with him. Not only me, Ricky and Sourav were also there, and we as a coaching group were behind him and were extremely happy to see him in action.”

The last 15 months had fans and everyone in the cricketing community go through a whirlwind of emotions concerning Pant – ardent prayers for his total recovery, the coming to terms about his absence from the field for an uncertain period, being happy on seeing him walk crutches free and reading about him cherishing the smallest joys life offers.

They all were being optimistic (and sometimes pessimistic) about his return when he batted for a brief time at the JSW Independence Day function and finally, shed joyful tears with goosebumps and relief mixed in heart and mind on seeing him slowly coming back to his old self at the new stadium in Mullanpur on March 23, 2024.

Even though fans faced difficulties in getting back to their respective destinations from the stadium after the game ended, they were more than content to see Pant being well and truly back at the cricket, carrying a strong belief with themselves that they witnessed the commencement of an extremely special chapter in his life and professional cricket career. (IANS)


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