Rishabh Pant went past an unwanted record on the opening day of the Hyderabad Test. Few wicket-keepers had conceded over 100 byes in their Test career faster than the Delhi wicket-keeper. Back in Bangalore, Kiran More though was unperturbed. He was more focused on Pant’s only other contribution on the day. It was a smart leg-side catch to get rid of West Indies skipper Jason Holder, as he swiftly moved to his left and grabbed the faint nick off the gloves. For, it was validation for the work the former India wicket-keeper had put in with young Pant over the three days leading up to the match at the National Cricket Academy (NCA).
The request to spend some time fine-tuning India’s latest wicket-keeper had originally come from More’s former teammate and India’s present head coach Ravi Shastri. The two spent one-and-a-half-hour sessions daily following the Rajkot Test. And More admits to being very pleased with the “progress” the youngster had made. “Compared to the last Test, his movement and hand positions were solid. The leg-side catch off Holder and the one off Kraigg Brathwaite in the second innings were fantastic. It was all about footwork. Earlier, at times he was moving side-on and therefore had to dive more. Here, I tried to open him up slightly for the leg and off side, and he hardly dived in Hyderabad. He was right on the ball while taking the catch and he rolled over only because of the pace,” explains More.
The other aspects, he reveals, that the two worked on were his head position, the balance and trying to open up the shoulders so that he could move quicker on either side to catch the ball.
More also didn’t agree with the incessant criticism that Pant’s glove-work has come under, more so during the England tour, along with his emergence as a game-changing middle-order batsman for India in Tests. He puts the “minor” errors that he commits to him being a “natural keeper like Dhoni” who hasn’t received too much coaching while growing up and the fact that Pant hasn’t played a significant amount of four-day matches.
“You have to be mindful that he got a sudden call-up to the Test team and here he’s playing his first match on Indian soil. It’s way too early for us to focus only on his negatives. It’ll be a process and Rishabh is a street-smart cricketer who picks up whatever I say very quickly,” says More.
Test baptism by fire
England isn’t the easiest country to keep wickets, and even more so when you’re taking your first strides into the Test format. And Pant did struggle overall. The posthumous swing of the ball that happens after the ball crosses the stumps and is halfway through to the keeper created a lot of understandable problems for him. Not many cricketers over the years have tackled it effectively and Pant was just a newbie. Also, the bowlers were unable to control the swing in helpful conditions and did spray a bit too much – the number of byes that Pant conceded has to be seen in that light. For, like More says they were “impossible to catch”.
But there were other notable points that emerged in the three Tests there. Pant keeps wickets in the way he bats: pure reflex sometimes overruled the basics. More hands than feet, ruled his style. He would jerk his hands almost reflexively to pouch balls in unconventional positions — when the ball has seemingly gone behind him and such. The reflex was sharp and he was able to catch those misbehaving balls. It helped him especially in the case of bouncers down the leg side, when he didn’t have to move sideways a lot but more vertical — with his superb reflexes and acrobatic skills helping him to drag down the ball safely. But it also led to a few basic errors.
At times, he wouldn’t shuffle to his right (assuming the ball was in that direction) but would just stand and lunge out with his hands. That meant he didn’t get close to the ball before gathering, and was more or less, like his batting, catching away from his body. It led to problems. As much as the hand-eye coordination is vital to the art of wicket-keeping, it’s the movement of feet that takes the keepers close to the ball, to positions from where the eventual catching becomes easier. But Pant was often out of position.
With the ball wobbling around behind the stumps, Pant then started to predetermine or rather anticipate the eventual direction of the ball. It again led to errors. There were at least couple of chances he missed because he had started to move far too early to his left but the edge meant the ball was going the other way. He would then lunge to his right but was unable to bridge the gap in time. The dependence on reflexes also created a curious problem: at times he would jerk his hands almost late, almost by instinct, which meant the slip fielder was put off his focus. With Pant’s hands flailing around at the last instant, the slip fielder didn’t have a clear vision. It nearly happened once in Hyderabad too, as Ajinkya Rahanewas slightly put off by his protruding glove.
This way and that
Historically, in cricket, there are two version of keeping: the Australian way and the English way. The wicketkeepers from England like to get some part of the body behind the ball — they shuffle to the sides and like to catch the ball in front of the body. This came about because of excessive swing after the ball passes the stumps — the wicketkeepers felt that it was more prudent to present the body as a second defense. The Australian way was different. Their keepers would shuffle a lot more sideways and liked to pouch the ball to their left. Run YouTube videos of the likes of Ian Healy or Rod Marsh (Australians) versus a Jack Russell or any other English ’keeper and you will see the difference in styles.