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Rishabh Pant back but fitness update set to spark T20 World Cup debate

Is Rishabh Pant such a non-negotiable that corners can be cut to facilitate his return to the national set-up?

For all the loud whispers emanating from the Delhi Capitals camp surrounding the potential availability of Rishabh Pant for IPL 2024, the clearest indication yet that the 26-year-old was all but match-fit came a couple of days back in Dharamsala. Jay Shah, the secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, proclaimed during India’s hammering of England in the final Test that if Pant was able to keep wickets, he could be in contention for the T20 World Cup in the Americas in June.

Rishabh Pant has been declared fit to participate in IPL 2024

It was on the heels of that announcement that the wicketkeeper-batter was cleared fit by the National Cricket Academy on Tuesday to resume both ‘keeping and batting duties in the IPL, beginning on March 22. This is a significant development with far-reaching ramifications. If the ebullient left-hander can convince the brains’ trust of Rohit Sharma, head coach Rahul Dravid and chief selector Ajit Agarkar that he is battle-ready – form- and fitness-wise – it will be a massive shot in the arm for an Indian team still looking to add its collection of trophies, the last of which came 11 years back at the Champions Trophy.

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The fact that Pant has been declared ready for play is a gargantuan tribute to the grit and gumption of the young man, who met with a horrific road accident less than 15 months back. Determined to prove medical teams wrong and working on his own timeline, Pant’s rapid rehabilitation speaks to his desire to put the past behind him and make a fresh start. By his own acknowledgement, this is literally a second lease of life and he has channeled his desire to express gratitude by getting back out on the field admirably.

To say that Pant hasn’t been missed all these months will be an exaggeration – in Test cricket alone, India fielded four stumpers in the 14 matches for which he was unavailable – but the depth at their disposal allowed India to tide over a potential crisis without too much damage. They unearthed a jewel in Dhruv Jurel and a potential late-order T20 destroyer in Jitesh Sharma, but Pant is Pant, a bundle of textbook correctness and cheeky unorthodoxy who can – and has – changed outcomes of a game in the bat of an eyelid.

Pant doesn’t have the greatest Twenty20 International record – he averages 22.43 and his strike-rate is a passable, but no more, 126.37 in 66 matches – but some individuals bring far greater value than their numbers and the effervescent, bubbly lad from Haridwar falls in that category. Few possess the ability to make an immediate but ever-lasting impact like Pant does, as he has reiterated time and again, primarily in red-ball cricket. But even he has his task cut out. He must showcase not just peak fitness and complete recovery but also form with the bat and tidy glovework if he is to wend his way back into contention. As the last 15 months have illustrated, if he doesn’t manage to do so, it won’t be for want of trying.

Of course, he will be under tremendous pressure to press his claims all over again, but Pant has overcome greater adversity and therefore the odds of him not winning this battle will be extremely short. The challenge for him, as much as it will be for the backroom staff at his franchise, will be to ensure that there is no overreach, that he doesn’t end up doing too much too soon with too much intensity unless he is fully up to it because otherwise, it could set his international comeback back by several months.

Will India be a stronger outfit in Pant’s presence in the United States and the Caribbean? Of course. But is Pant such a non-negotiable that corners can be cut to facilitate his return to the national set-up? Certainly not. All other things being equal, he has a decade of high-level cricket left in him and it’s imperative that in the quest for short-term gains, the longer picture isn’t lost sight of.

It’s incumbent upon the collective wisdom of celebrated former international skippers Ponting and Ganguly, in consultation with the BCCI’s medical staff, to ease Pant back into the fray. Fifteen months away from competitive cricket is a long time. To then find oneself back on the circuit straightaway in the uncompromising cauldron of IPL action will test the physical, mental and psychological resolve of the toughest. Pant has proved himself to be as tough as anyone else, but this is a time for prudence and intelligence more than for bravado, a message that shouldn’t be lost on anyone closely involved with his comeback.


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