India vs South Africa: Chastened Rishabh Pant sings the redemption song with innings of subliminal brilliance

In the last 12 months alone, Rishabh Pant has played four extraordinary Test innings – that’s plenty more than most specialist batsmen do in a lifetime. Indeed, had it not been for the chunky left-hander’s unforgettable heroics on Thursday, India’s final Test and the series against South Africa would have been done and dusted by now.

Last January, Pant breezed to a stroke-studded 118-ball 91 in Sydney, briefly raising visions of a surreal Indian win but eventually laying the base on which Hanuma Vihari and R Ashwin erected their match-saving alliance. A week later, his unbeaten 89 powered India to a fabulous three-wicket win in Brisbane, Australia’s Gabba fortress breached for the first time in 33 years following the visitors’ successful assault on a record 328.

Seven weeks thence, on a wearing, crumbling, spitting surface in Ahmedabad, Pant batted without a care in the world, battering England into such submission with India under great pressure that a seemingly tight contest unfolded into an embarrassing one-sided rout. Desperately needing to win to qualify for the World Test Championship final and floundering at 146 for six in response to England’s 205, Pant and Washington Sundar briefly stonewalled and stuttered when then head coach Ravi Shastri reminded them that they were playing at home, on a turning track, and that they must boss England’s spinners. Rejuvenated by that tea-time pep talk, Pant cut loose, hurtling to 101 off just 118 deliveries and setting up an innings win.

Rishabh Pant played a mature knock in the third Test against South Africa having come under criticism in the previous contest. AP

Thursday at Newlands, however, will remain special for so many reasons. The conditions weren’t anything like he had encountered prior to this series – liberal lateral movement, spongy and steepling bounce, a high-class four-pronged pace attack with the bite between its teeth, and an uncertain bunch of colleagues whose survival skills, with the honourable exception of Virat Kohli, ranged from the barely-there to the non-existent.

Pant himself was coming into this match under a massive cloud, an offshoot of his third-ball misadventurism in the previous game at The Wanderers. Kagiso Rabada had just winkled out the well-set Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara to stymie India’s designs of building a substantial third-innings tally when the wicketkeeper-batsman charged the paceman a ball after being smacked on the grill of his helmet and edged an ugly hoick to the stumper. It was a terrible stroke even in isolation; given that the game was on a powder keg, it was an inexcusable extravaganza.

In the immediacy of that stroke, Rahul Dravid acknowledged in public that he would be speaking to his young charge about shot selection. It was a sentiment echoed by Kohli a day before the Test. Pant was not being put on notice, but he was being told in no uncertain terms that the line between carefree and careless, thin as it is, can’t be transgressed with reckless abandon any longer.

Whatever and in whichever way the head coach and the skipper conveyed their thoughts to Pant certainly seems to have worked wonders. Even in the first innings in Cape Town, Pant batted with caution if not circumspection, easing to 27 before being consumed by the extra bounce beanpole Marco Jansen procured.

On Day 3 of the decider, Pant trumped all that and more. Single-handedly, he kept India in the hunt as mates came and went with the rapidity of falling autumn leaves. Bar Kohli, who engaged with him in a 95-run partnership, Pant had no support. Yet, showcasing a maturity well beyond his 24 years and a temperament that would have done someone with twice as many as his 27 Test appearances proud, he seldom lost poise or composure while playing inarguably the single most dominant knock by an Indian in recent times.

Savour this. Pant walked out in the day’s third over after India lost Pujara in the first and Rahane in the next with only one run added to the overnight 57. By the time he walked off unconquered as India folded for 198, Pant alone had accounted for 100 of the 140 runs scored when he was in the middle. India’s next highest scorer was Kohli with 29; of the rest, KL Rahul (10) alone managed to get into double figures.

If this isn’t ultimate dominance, then what about this? Pant’s fourth Test century came off a mere 133 deliveries, and that also only because he slowed down past the mid-80s with just Ten and Jack for company and so turned down easy singles in order to farm the strike. On a track where most batsmen, the impressive Keegan Petersen excepted, have struggled to put bat to ball, Pant hardly put a foot wrong. He was in supreme command of himself and the bowling, uncluttered in the mind, unhurried in his approach, uninhibited in his stroke-making.

In an unmistakable throwback to Sydney and Brisbane, Pant showed off his situational awareness. There was no attempt to manufacture strokes, no overwhelming desire to dominate the bowling, no outlandish clatter down the pitch to hit his way out of trouble. This was Pant at his calmest, most Zen-like. South Africa perhaps recognised the futility of trying to get under his skin – despite having done so with instant success in Johannesburg – because even the annoying Rassie van der Dussen, under the lid at short-leg, seldom offered a word edgewise.

For all his composure, Pant was anything if not exciting. His assault on left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj either side of lunch was breathtaking, his running between the wickets purposeful, his defence assured, his movements decisive. One could see this masterpiece evolving brick by colourful brick; the only thing that stood between him and a third century was the unseemly hurry with which his colleagues were deserting him.

Already, Pant has three-figure knocks in England, Australia and South Africa, a feat that has eluded many top-order batsmen and all of India’s wicketkeepers. He has taken to the No 6 position as if to the manor born. Maybe we should forgive him the occasional misdemeanour, with the caveat that it can be only occasional. At best.

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