THE STONE STEPS frocking Sri Venkateswara College’s cricket field are burdened to capacity. The weekend is here and the ritualistic inter-college match is underway. But the spectators, munching gazak and slurping milky chai from paper cups on this brown and smoky Delhi morning, have their attention drawn to an event unfolding just beyond the crushed-chalk boundary. A fellow student, one repeating his first year BA programme, is being interviewed by a TV news crew—anchor, camera-person, microphone, tripod, the whole shebang.
“Toh Rishabh, aap Sehwag jaise batting karte ho, ya Gilchrist (Do you bat like Sehwag, or Gilchrist)?” asks the interviewer. The interviewee, Rishabh Pant, below-average college student and exemplary cricketer, nineteen years of age and all of seven first-class matches old, has his hands knotted behind his back. In reply, he shrugs his shoulders and blushes. In this ongoing Ranji Trophy season, Pant’s first as a permanent member of Delhi’s playing XI where he also dons the wicketkeeper’s gloves, the teenager has accumulated numbers that are nothing short of staggering. In five matches so far, Pant has stacked 799 runs at an average of 114.14 per innings. Not just that, Pant has struck one 50 and four 100s, in seven innings. Two of those centuries were struck successively in one match. The second of those hundreds was the fastest recorded (in terms of balls faced) in the history of first-class cricket in India—48.
There was also a triple century. Only the second scored by a Delhi player, ever. Only the second scored by a wicketkeeper-bats man in India, ever. Only the third scored by an Indian teenager, ever.
Left-handed Pant has done all of this while tonking 79 fours and 44 sixes. To put that in perspective, Virat Kohli has hit a total of 25 sixes in his 10-year old first-class career (which includes his Test statistics). Pant has 44 in five games. Twenty one of those, incidentally, were punched out in one match—split 8 and 13 in the two essays of his twin-century game.
The ferocity of it all—his runs, his game, his span, his life, his promise—has caused brash and careless comparisons. Perhaps this is what it means to be a prodigy in India. Now the TV crew wants to collect footage of Pant batting in the nets. Batting like Sehwag. Batting like Gilchrist. Pant is reluctant, but agrees. He is, after all, dressed for the occasion—in his India U-19 practice clothes and wrap-around fluorescent-green sunglasses.
The herd—one TV crew, a handful of journalists, Pant, his club Sonnet’s coaches, their yes-men—drifts towards the adjacent practice nets. The spectators are quickly flocking the back of the practice pitches. Reaching into his bloated kit bag, Pant begins armouring up for the show. Once geared, a bat with a green handle is drawn out of a plastic sheath. Pant twirls the handle in his hands and examines its shoulder for chips and bruises. Some from the gathered audience point out that the act of twirling is just the way Kohli does it. Pant, within earshot, smiles. At the back of the willow, across the protruding spine, is a message scribbled with a permanent marker. Pant wants us to read it. ‘Congratulations and keep giving your best always—Tendulkar’
“This is the bat with which I scored my triple century in Wankhede Stadium. Jab match khatam hua, Sachin paaji arranged for the bat to be picked up and signed it,” says Pant. Have you retired the bat then, someone asks. “Paagal hai kya? I used this to hit my fastest hundred also. This is now my main bat.” The main bat goes back into its sheath and out comes a practice bat. “Time to try this,” he says.
Sometimes strangers would drop by at my father’s office and say, ‘How can the son of school administrators not study?
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A fast bowler, in his mid-twenties, begins proceedings. Pant, a heavy-set fellow with strapping shoulders and a fair amount of girth around his waist, takes his southpaw stance. A wide stance at that to balance the weight of his powerful torso. The ball pitches on middle-stump and swings wide down the leg side. Pant shakes his head. “Itna mehnat karne ka faayda kya hai? Underarm hee daal doh phir, value milega (What’s the point of all that effort? Bowl underarm, it’ll bring you more value),” he says as he marks his crease again. Then something remarkable happens.
“Sorry bhaiya,” says the bowler and returns to his mark with furtive steps. Bhaiya, or older brother, is a synonym for respect in north India. A teenager has earned the title from a man pushing 30. In this ecosystem, Pant is now the elder statesman. This, too, is perhaps what it means to be a prodigy in India.
Like most successful attacking batsmen, Pant reads the ball from the bowler’s hand. Not off the pitch. And like most clever attacking batsmen, Pant hits crisp textbook shots. Not slogs. The crowd, though, want to see some hits. Big hits. “Faayda kya hai? Net shot ko rok degi (What’s the point if the net blocks all the big shots),” he says. “No value bhai, no value.” He eventually relents and cuts loose, finding said value by channeling balls into the only uncovered region—straight back past the bowler. “Mazaa nahi aata, really, hitting net bowlers is no fun,” he says. But he continues to do it, perhaps because we are watching.
Twenty minutes later, he wraps up his session, only to be swarmed by cellphone cameras. So he adjusts his hair (again, as some would say, like Kohli) with both palms and holds two fingers up every time a button is clicked. When he recognises a face among the fans, possibly a classmate, Pant asks him how college is going. The boy, clearly stoked by the attention he has just received from the man of the hour, replies: “Studies wudies chhodo. Aap desh ki sewa karo, bas (Forget about studies. Just continue to serve the nation.)”
Pant laughs like a man possessed. Education was never his priority. Despite him being born to a family of teachers. Despite him being from Roorkee—a university town in the foothills of Uttarakhand that holds in its womb the very symbol of middle-class India’s aspirations, the Indian Institute of Technology.
To understand him, then, we must travel about 150 km north of Delhi. And about 15 years back in time.
AT THE AGE of five, when children in Roorkee are first told the meaning of the institute in their vicinity, Pant was gifted his first cricket bat. A year on, all of six years old and no more than three-and-a-half-feet tall, he was good enough to play for the school’s senior team. Soon, as ten Xth graders and one first grader took the field, his parents (who incidentally were responsible for running New Modern Public School) watched in awe. “Mummy-Papa never put unnecessary pressure. They never told me, ‘Beta, padhai pe dhyaan do’. Which is rare, given they are teachers, in Roorkee,” says Pant. So when boys his age were attending tuitions (remedial classes) after the final school bell, Pant was winning Man of the Match trophies in inter-city school games. “I received my first Man of the Series when I was in Class III. It made the local newspapers. Everyone in Roorkee had heard of my name by then.” And then, of course, they began talking.
“Free advice,” Pant terms it. “Sometimes complete strangers would drop by at my father’s office and say, ‘Why are you encouraging this cricket nonsense and ruining his future?’ Some even said, ‘How can the son of school administrators not study? What kind of example does that set?’ My parents didn’t budge.”
Hopefully one day people will point at a batsman and say, ‘Look, he’s batting like Rishabh Pant
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By the time the boy was in Class VIII, still the youngest in the school side but by far the most experienced, Pant had made his mind up. The parents, as he expected, were understanding when he told them that he was going to drop out of school and pursue ‘serious’ cricket. And to do that, he had to move out of Uttarakhand, which just didn’t have the infrastructure to provide for his giddy ambitions.
The road ahead was fraught with more disappointments than an adolescent boy could handle. He first tried his luck in Rajasthan, nearly making the state’s Under-19 team when he was just 14. In an important district game, Pant opened the innings for his side and smashed a whirlwind 90. His parents, who had made the journey to witness their son take his first step into the big time, were certain he had made the cut. So was Pant, when his team rode on his successful knock and won. “I’ll tell you what happened next,” he says. “One Rajasthan administrator went up to my parents and said, “Achha hua aapke bete ne sau nahi banaya. Uski collar khadi ho jati (I’m glad your son didn’t get a century. His collar would’ve gone up).”
“I hit a century in the next game. My collar didn’t go up. Neither did my name on the Under-19 team list. It was time to try my luck elsewhere.”
One coach in Rajasthan’s then administration, however, saw what the others refused to. But again, Tarak Sinha’s reputation is hinged on his ability to spot talent before and better than anyone else. The ‘discoveries’ are then enrolled for free and groomed by him at Sonnet Cricket Club—a franchise he formed in 1969 and continues to coach at. Most of his finds make it easily to the first-class circuit. Some, like Surinder Khanna, Manoj Prabhakar, Raman Lamba, Ajay Sharma, Ashish Nehra and Shikhar Dhawan, have gone all the way to the Indian cricket team.
By his own admission, Sinha says that he has been “blessed by God” to identify natural talent the way he does. “I noticed that Rishabh reads the line of the ball better than anyone else,” says Sinha, watching over a practice session at a weekend Sonnet camp. “Even at that age, he had incredible judgement. That’s what we in cricket call ‘born ability’. I knew he could go places.”
The first place Pant had to go, or find in this case, was one in Sonnet’s senior team. “Sonnet sometimes fields as many as 10 current Ranji players,” says Pant. “To get in and retain my spot, I had to make sure that I scored big every time I walked out to bat.” Pant made the main team at 15, and when he was 16, he had hit form seldom seen by a club batsman before. Delhi’s club circuit consists of several ‘hot weather tournaments’, played against other city clubs. For Sonnet, in a single season, Pant scored close to 2,300 runs—with the help of 13 100s. On two separate occasions in that incredible run, he scored three 100s in succession. “The second time I scored a hat-trick of 100s for Sonnet, I was dropped. Because a Ranji player wearing his team’s Ranji logo had returned to the club for practice,” Pant says, still rattled. “That’s when I told myself that I must become indispensable. So that even if an Indian cricketer was to play for us, they would drop someone else and not me.”
“And that’s also when I realised how badly I wanted a big team’s logo on my chest,” he says, tugging at the BCCI crest he is currently wearing.
His quest for a heavy logo on his chest has made him a popular student, and a very successful cricketer. Earlier this year, in February, Pant was chosen to represent India at the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh. He turned out to be the unequivocal star of the campaign. Following a 50 against New Zealand in the group game, Pant hit the fastest-ever 50 at the youth level against Nepal—in just 18 balls. In the next match, the quarterfinals against Namibia, Pant scored 111. But he remembers the day for a different reason.
“That was the day of the IPL auction,” he says. Pant went under the hammer with a base price of Rs 10 lakh. Four franchises got into a bidding war. Rising Pune Supergiants offered him Rs 35 lakh. Mumbai Indians upped that to Rs 1.7 crore. Bangalore Royal Challengers took it further to Rs 1.8 crore, before Delhi Daredevils sealed the deal with Rs 1.9 crore—19 times his base price. “It felt great, of course. I was most happy that I wouldn’t have to take money from Mummy-Papa.”
Pant didn’t dominate the IPL like he has everything else (one 50 and a total of 198 runs), but he says the experience of playing alongside the best in the world made him a better player. And going by the impact it had on his first full Ranji season, you ought to believe him. Against Assam in Delhi’s opening game, Pant scored 146. “It was important to set the tone early on,” he says.
The tone was loud and clear when he hit 308 against Maharashtra in the next game. “They made us field for two days. And it’s not easy to keep for that long. So I made sure they had their due as well.” Ask him what he was thinking when he blazed away to the fastest Ranji 100, against Jharkhand, and the reply is just as terrific. “They made us follow-on, bhai. That hurt a lot. I was trying to return some pain.”
“I know many are surprised at how well I’ve done, but I am not. I have big dreams,” Pant says. How big, you ask. He laughs. “Hopefully one day people will point at a batsman and say, ‘Look, he’s batting like Rishabh Pant’.”