They came to see you bat Rishabh Pant, not to see you bat.
All series long there’s been chatter around Pant. He’s been accompanied by sniggers in the commentary box every time he comes to bat. What will he do now? Will he charge at Jimmy Anderson? Will he reverse sweep him? Will he stand halfway down the pitch to face the bowling, toothpick in hand and cigar in mouth?
Each dismissal has built this up, not only for the circumstances for when he’s been dismissed but – and this is really what compounds matters – the manner. At Trent Bridge he was beaten by extra bounce when driving straight to short cover when India were still nearly 40 runs behind on first innings.
At Lord’s, he threw his hands into a slash at a Mark Wood delivery, bottom-edging behind. He’d added 49 with Ravindra Jadeja, but India’s lower order fell away for just 34 more runs after that. In the second, with India effectively 167 for 6, he played an open-faced defensive prod to the wicketkeeper.
At Headingley, he first edged behind trying to force one through covers – the fifth wicket in the 78 all out – and then chased a wider one straight to third slip. India were in the process of falling from 215 for 3 to 278 all out.
It’s been, in one sense, a no-win situation. Had he been dismissed off fewer attacking strokes, questions would have been asked about his ability in seamer-friendly conditions. But because he’s been out attacking, it’s both his inadequacies in the conditions and his carelessness.
So, when he walked in on Sunday at The Oval, it did feel as if a release was due, though whether it would be an explosion or an implosion nobody could say. Pant had in front of him the most batter-friendly conditions of the series – so much so that Jasprit Bumrah would later look a batter – but also a tiring England attack with over a hundred overs already bowled, and, for Anderson and Ollie Robinson in particular, a heavy series workload. But it wasn’t as straightforward as that. India were nearly 200 ahead but not yet enough ahead, and before he was really set, Virat Kohli was dismissed.
Not for the first time in his career, Pant did something outside of most expectations, if only because, in grinding out his slowest first-class fifty, even he was going somewhere he’d never gone before. A little underwhelming maybe but, for how unlike a Pant innings, still a bit of an event.
It’s not that he is incapable of defence. Here was a surface on which he could trust his defence. It was more how long he could hold himself back which, it turns out, is pretty long. He didn’t play his first shot in aggression until the 33rd ball he faced, a pull off Craig Overton. He didn’t hit his first boundary until his 54th ball, though that loft straight down the ground off Moeen Ali was worth that wait. It was the second-longest period he’s been without a boundary in a Test innings. Like a good boy, he didn’t even try to reverse-sweep Anderson until he’d faced 89 balls and only because, by then, with Shardul Thakur taking off, India’s position was secure enough for him to attempt it. But it got to such a stage that England were wanting Pant to do something silly, rather than just waiting for him to do it.
Instead, other things came to the fore like his running, repeatedly stealing singles to the mid-on and mid-off fielders. Early on, he turned one to long-on into a double so unexpectedly that it gifted him, through four overthrows, his only six.
Every now and again he’d get back into character, a sign that this was all, as the batting coach Vikram Rathour later said, “a little out of character.” In the same over, he pulled Overton for no run, he let the last ball go by. Except that before it had even reached the keeper’s gloves, he played an air-slash, like a little release of all the tension from what he was doing.
“[It was] extremely important,” Rathour said of the innings. “The situation when he went in to bat, we needed a partnership there. So he took the responsibility. This was a little out of character – he really, really approached the innings well, played with a lot of discipline.
“We all know that he has ability (but) if he can bring in this ability of his to the forefront and play differently in different situations, that will do really well for him and will do really well to Indian team.
“We keep talking and we keep discussing what his plans are and how he is going to approach the innings. Today also he understood the situation and what was required. To his credit, he could play an innings – as I said – that was a little out of character for him. That will give him a lot of confidence going forward.”
A lack of confidence has never seemed to be an acute Pant affliction, but he did look distinctly underwhelmed himself when he got to fifty. A slowly ground-out Test fifty, he might have been thinking, is really not all that it’s cracked up to be.