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Rishabh Pant: The impact player is ready to roll once again

The gutsy ‘keeper-batter surmounted the odds in his recovery from serious injuries. The big IPL challenge is up next for the Delhi Capitals talisman

453 days. That’s how long it would have been since Rishabh Pant played a competitive game when he turns out for Delhi Capitals in their opening IPL game against Punjab Kings in Mullanpur, Mohali on March 23.

Delhi Capitals head coach Ricky Ponting and skipper Rishabh Pant during the team’s pre-tournament practice session in Visakhapatnam(PTI)

Or more appropriately, that’s how quickly Pant will have managed to stage a comeback.

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To first appreciate how miraculous a recovery this has been, a flashback to the wee hours of December 30, 2022, is needed when Pant, driving from Delhi to meet his mother in Roorkee, suffered a horrific road accident that saw his car go up in flames and his body soaked in blood. By the time the grim news broke out that morning, cricket was farthest from anyone’s mind because it was clear that Pant, then 25, had narrowly escaped death.

Two knee reconstruction procedures, a plastic surgery and countless rehab, strength and training sessions later, here we are — Pant, wearing 120 stitches across his forehead, has challenged the 18-month timeline orthopaedic specialist Dr Dinshaw Pardiwala, who operated on his right knee, had set for his return by getting back in 14 months.

From being bedridden in the initial weeks to walking with crutches to gradually getting back to training to now reaching a position where he’s hoping to entertain crowds again with bat and gloves, Pant has pulled off a feat just as unbelievable as some of his stupendous knocks in a career that was hitting its peak when the accident occurred.

A long hiatus of this nature can break many strong individuals, but Pant is upbeat and back to flashing that wicked smile again, knowing that this is a second chance in life as well as cricket that he should enjoy and embrace wholeheartedly.

Even a month ago, Pant’s immediate cricketing future seemed riddled with uncertainty given the reports that were swirling. Delhi Capitals co-owner Parth Jindal had gone on record to say Pant will only play as a batter during the first half of the IPL season. This was following the suggestions from officials within the Delhi Capitals camp that Pant may only be used as an Impact Player this season.

On March 12, any ambiguity was allayed as BCCI declared in a media release that Pant was fit to play IPL 2024 as a wicketkeeper-batter. The news brought expected cheer, for Pant was a proven match-winner at the time of his accident who had already achieved things in a short span that none of his predecessors had. For example, he is the only Indian wicketkeeper-batter with Test hundreds in England, Australia and South Africa. His unbeaten 89 against Australia at the Gabba in 2021, which landed India a landmark series win, is a knock that will go down in history as one of the greatest in the fourth innings of a Test.

While Pant has gratitude for simply being able to return to the field, it will be a travesty to his immense talent if he’s unable to conjure the magic that made him stand out. And in the coming weeks, that’s the battle he faces. Can Pant be the cricketer he was?

From the short social media clips that Pant and DC have been sharing of his batting, he still has the trademark shots in his locker – the one-handed hoick for six on the leg side, the bludgeons down the ground and the range of sweeps and paddles that can send captains into a tizzy about the fields to set. The caveat is these are just practice sessions, and a more accurate assessment of his readiness can only be arrived at in the heat of the battle.

Even if he rediscovers that special touch with the willow, the work behind the stumps is bound to ask questions of his right knee and be far more taxing. As former Delhi player Devender Sharma — he runs the late Tarak Sinha’s Sonnet Club in Delhi and is regarded as an “elder brother” by Pant — says: “It is difficult to keep wicket after a knee surgery. The challenge as a keeper is to go up and down constantly. Even when the ball doesn’t come to you, you have to go up and down for 120 balls in a T20. And there are sideways movements as well. If your knee isn’t right, keeping is impossible.”

It is indicative of Pant’s resolve that he hasn’t wavered from his determination to return as a keeper-batter. “He met me last week and we spoke for about five hours,” Sharma said. “He is confident that keeping won’t be a problem. He told me, ‘Main keepingkaroonga aur saare match kheloonga. Yeh impact player ki baat ka koi matlab nahi hai. Main bilkul fit hoon. (I will keep and play all the matches. This impact player talk is meaningless. I am absolutely fit).’ He is mentally very strong. He told me that his aim is to start off where he had finished. He has his mind set on the T20 World Cup.”

While Pant’s positive attitude is just what we’ve come to expect, it is essential that the decision-makers take things easy with the 26-year-old. Having missed last year’s ODI World Cup and the recent Test series against England, Pant will be understandably eager to make up for lost time. Even as we marvel at his imminent return, however, it is important that a pragmatic roadmap is charted out. That will benefit both Pant and Indian cricket in the long run.


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