Two days after he cremated his father, Rishabh Pant strode onto the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium pitch, with Delhi Daredevils placed at 55/3. He hit the very first ball for a massive six over square leg, and in a 36-ball 57-run knock, hit another three sixes. Despite his best efforts though, the Daredevils fell short of an ordinary 158-run target.
This, though, isn’t about that failed run-chase. It is about a young batsman’s bravery in time of bereavement, yet taking the stage by storm. As Pant stroked his way to a masterful half-century, former England international Kevin Pietersen remarked about his confident mannerism at the crease. His co-commentator Ravi Shastri, who has served as the national team’s director, then talked about the benefits of the Indian Premier League.
“They come to the international arena as finished products, brimming with confidence, and it is all because they get a stage like this to perform,” the former Indian team director said. His words were a pointed description of how this tournament – across seasons – has impacted the lives of various young cricketers otherwise lost in the wilderness of domestic cricket.
From Virat Kohli to Kuldeep Yadav, this trait – of belonging on the international stage from the word go, irrespective of conditions and opposition, confident enough of going for the jugular to achieve the impossible – is easily identifiable in the current generation of Indian cricketers. They have been hardened with time spent in the tough environment of Ranji Trophy, much like the previous generations of superstars. There is a discernable difference though, in their inspired swagger when they arrive at the crease. It is all down to the opportunity that the IPL provides.
In smacking those quick runs against Royal Challengers Bangalore, Pant showed admirable courage given his personal circumstances. But away from that aspect, all he did was merely adopt the stage that was promised to him. In the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy, he scored 972 runs in 8 matches at an astonishing strike-rate of 107.28, and everyone was waiting with bated breath for him to start playing for the Delhi Daredevils. He was simply living up to that hype.
“It takes a big person to come a couple of days after your father has passed away and play. He said his dad would have wanted him playing. It shows his character. He’s going to be a big player for India in the future,” said Chris Morris, Pant’s Daredevils’ teammate.
Here, it needs to be pointed out that Pant has already made his international debut, featuring in the third T20I against England at Bengaluru earlier this year. Maybe Morris’ words have a prophetic ring about them, for Pant’s big-hitting bravado in the first two matches of this IPL season has set off a race with his peers.
If ‘opportunity’ is synonymous with the IPL, then the reward for making it count is a call-up to the Indian team. Ask Manish Pandey, who scored 401 runs in 16 matches for Kolkata Knight Riders in their 2014 winning campaign. It helped him regain the attention of national selectors after he had first struck an IPL hundred in 2009. Given his good showing in First-Class cricket, Pandey found himself making an international debut in Zimbabwe in the summer of 2015.
Thereafter, he has stayed on the fringes of the Indian ODI team, even dabbling in at one point with a glittering maiden hundred in Sydney (January 2016). Poor form thereafter against New Zealand cost him his spot, with Yuvraj Singh called up for the ODI series against England. Pandey knows too well that this is a vital time for him to shine once again and make another bid for national call-up. Otherwise he risks falling behind, perennially even.
Against Mumbai Indians then, Pandey had scored 50 off 37 balls, holding Kolkata’s innings together. Thereafter, he teed off, hitting 31 runs off the next 10 balls inclusive of three sixes. He took 23 runs off Mitchell McClanaghan’s final over. “It was important for me to stay till the end. That’s where I can play my game, and finish with ease,” he said afterwards.
Two days later, in almost a mirror-reflection of Pandey’s knock, Delhi’s Sanju Samson made his presence felt in Pune on Tuesday, notching up the first hundred of this IPL season. Coming in at no.3, he helped the Daredevils recover from a slow start, reaching 50 off 41 balls. Thereafter, he took 51 off 22 balls, inclusive of two fours and five sixes, shredding the Rising Supergiant’s attack to pieces
Like Pant and Pandey, Samson too has experience with the Indian dressing room. He had been called up to the ODI squad during the 2014 tour of England, albeit he didn’t feature in any matches. It was hint enough of his standing in the pegging order, but three years is a long time. Since then, it has been a sharp down-curve for the Kerala batsman, who has been caught up in a few off-field indiscipline incidents. Under Rahul Dravid’s continued tutelage, this knock is expected to be a significant turning point for Samson.
What do their exploits in this first week of competition signify, then? In individual capacity, it is either an extension of their domestic form (in Pant’s case) or a chance for redemption (for both Pandey and Samson). In summation, it is a marker of that aforementioned ‘opportunity’ afforded to these youngsters time and again.
At the end of this IPL season, the national selectors will pick the Indian squad for the 2017 Champions Trophy. The need of the hour is a sparkly middle-order batsman who can pace the innings and changed gears to hit big at will. Depending on how the next five weeks progress, any one of these three explosive batsmen could be handed a plane ticket to England.