Rishabh Pant’s mature unbeaten 125 in Old Trafford, Manchester on Sunday, to take India to only its fourth ODI (One Day International) series win in England in 48 years, augurs well for the team in the upcoming T20 and ODI World Cups. The hard-hitting wicket keeper-batsman has oddly been an underachiever in the limited overs formats, even though he has produced series-defining knocks in Tests. His maiden century in the 27th match since his ODI debut in 2018 indicates a growing maturity in the 24-year-old who has been one of the most exciting talents in world cricket ever since he arrived on the scene.
Apart from the number of runs he scored, it’s the manner in which he got them that suggests a path to a higher percentage of success for the youngster. Pant is hailed for his fearless mode of batting, but has been guilty, too often, of gifting his wicket to the opposition. His century and fifty in the series-deciding Test at Birmingham earlier this month went in vain, after he got suckered by a wide ball from part-time off-spinner Joe Root in the first innings. He then fell to a reverse sweep off left-arm spinner Jack Leach in the second innings.
He might have similarly been dismissed in Sunday's ODI at Old Trafford when he jumped out of the crease to tonk off-spinner Moeen Ali. Destiny played a hand at that point as England’s new skipper, Jos Buttler, muffed the stumping chance. That reprieve came when Pant was on 18, and he buckled down to play a more risk-free knock to reach a run-a-ball century and rescue India from a precarious 72-4. In fact, he was outpaced by all-rounder Hardik Pandya who scored 71 in their 133-run fifth wicket partnership.
Pandya’s performance with both bat and ball, to become the player of the ODI series in England, ticks another big box in India’s World Cup lead-in. He was a shadow of his former self in last year’s T20 World Cup in the UAE after being prematurely drafted back into the team without having fully recovered from a back surgery. He found his mojo in this year’s IPL (Indian Premier League), not just with bat and ball, but also as a captain, leading the new franchise, Gujarat Titans, to the title.
The experience of captaincy has rounded Pandya out as a batsman who can adapt to different situations instead of being just a hard-hitting finisher. His four wickets of mainline batsmen for 24 runs in seven overs in the final ODI against England, followed by a fifty in the run chase, will go into the record books as one of the best all-round performances for India. The intelligence with which he exploited the bounce on the Old Trafford wicket, coupled with the inputs he gives to his former IPL captain and current India captain, Rohit Sharma, enhance India’s ability to play smart cricket under pressure.
Sharma has a 100 per cent success rate as captain since taking over from Virat Kohli, winning limited overs series against New Zealand, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, and England. The only ODI series India lost during this period was in South Africa, under KL Rahul. There was also a drawn T20 series at home against South Africa under Pant, in Sharma’s absence.
The reasons for Sharma's success as captain of India are the same as what served him so well at the helm of Mumbai Indians since taking the reins in 2013—maintaining an attacking mindset and getting the best out of strong teams. This was in ample evidence in the T20 and ODI series in England from his rotation of bowlers and field placements. India also adopted a more attacking mode in batting, abandoning anchor roles for top order batsmen regardless of the fall of wickets, and encouraging every player to show more intent and take risks.
Sharma’s masterstroke was to send Pant to bat at No.4, allowing more space and scope for the left-hander’s precocious talent to mature. He wasn’t required to bat in the first ODI and got out for a duck in the second one. But the think tank persisted with the batting lineup and it paid off big time in the decider.
Pant was also tried as a T20 opener in the absence of the injured Rahul. Although he only scored 1 and 26 in two outings, it was a bold and interesting move that we might well see again sometime in the future. For now, we can expect the return of Rahul, who has been in splendid form in all formats since last year. Meanwhile, Suryakumar Yadav has staked a strong claim for the No.5 position after Shreyas Iyer’s inability to handle the short ball got exposed. The considerable batting abilities of medium pacer Pandya and left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja rounded up a strong lineup.
The one big conundrum is the form of former skipper Virat Kohli, which has gone from bad to worse. His past record and megastar status make it likely that Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid will persist with him in the crucial No.3 slot. But if Kohli does not find a way out of the hole he has dug for himself by persisting with a front-foot fixation that bowlers are exploiting, it may prove to be the Achilles’ Heel of India’s batting in the upcoming World Cups.
As for the bowling, it continues to be spearheaded by the dependable Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, two of the best in world cricket. Pandya’s ability to bend his back to get wickets with the short ball in England, adds the extra dimension that was missing in the last World Cup.Another bowler who was below par in the 2021 T20 World Cup, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, is now bowling a shade faster to make his swing and seam movement effective. How he will fare in Australia, where wickets are hard and skies clear, remains an intriguing question for a bowler who relies so much on moving the ball in the air and off the grass.
But India do have a few good options in taller and speedier bowlers who could use the pace and bounce of Aussie wickets. Prasidh Krishna was off-colour in England but he hit his stride in the IPL, and against the West Indies at home earlier. Avesh Khan is another contender, although he has gone off the boil somewhat after being the second highest wicket-taker in last year’s IPL. It’s a pity the selectors did not try out his bowling partner at Lucknow Super Giants, the left-arm quick, Mohsin Khan, who had such a good IPL season.
They did give a cap to the fastest bowler in the land, Umran Malik of Kashmir. But he got only two T20 games against Ireland, and one against England, proving expensive in all three. If the Indian think tank is serious about unleashing the rookie on Aussie wickets in the T20 World Cup in October, he will need to be in the playing eleven for a few games at a stretch to find his bearings in international cricket. That could well turn out to be an X factor in India’s bowling, along with the renewed confidence of leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal.
Overall, India’s World Cup preparation is shaping up well. Hopefully the selectors will also do a better job than they did last year.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.