(Picture Credit: espncricinfo)
Jimmy Anderson is the ‘cockroach’ of swing and seam bowling. Emblematic of an indefatigable spirit, the man just refuses to be cowed down or dominated. On the unforgiving tracks of Sri Lanka and India, Anderson’s figures in his last four Tests read 88.5-41-148-13. And the man is all of 39 years old. Yet even the maestro might have had a jaw dropping moment when an impudent, impetuous and yet incandescent southpaw, sixteen years younger than him, almost dropped down on one knee to reverse sweep (yes you read that right) him over the slips for an audacious boundary on the 5th of March 2021.
The Narendra Modi Stadium, the largest cricket ground in the world, was the subject of contradiction and caustic debates following India’s demolition of Joe Root’s England in the Third Test Match of the ongoing India v England Test series. The pitch on which the game that did not even last the whole of two days, was intensely debated, defended, dissected and denigrated. However the same venue that is hosting the final test match of the series has been a philharmonic that has, after two full days, played a totally different kind of music. A deck that has aided swing, abetted bounce and also assisted the spinners landing the ball on a length.
On this level playing field, where the ball was coming onto the bat with a refreshing nicety, England won the toss and had no hesitation to bat first. However, yet another phenomenal performance by the Indian spinners coupled with some appalling batsmanship saw the English innings fold for a score just over 200. The Indian batsmen, in turn made their opponents modest score look like a magisterial mountain when four quick wickets fell with the scoreboard reading a paltry 80. Shubman Gill and Virat Kohli both failing to open their account.
The mercurial talent and a veritable motor mouth behind the stumps, Rishabh Pant, walked in to partner an unusually quiet, albeit steady Rohit Sharma. In the game of cricket, there is a phrase pregnant with import and indispensability. Match-awareness. Sizing up the situation ultimately leads to the seizing of an occasion. Pant looks to have made these two words an uncompromising flagship of his cricketing lexicon. Curbing his natural instinct, Pant nudged, tucked, nibbled, pushed, and dabbed through the initial bit of his innings. Even when he first lost Rohit Sharma, and then Ravichandran Ashwin, Pant did not look to attack. With India in a precarious situation at 146-6, it looked as though the visitors would be the beneficiaries of an improbable lead.
Washington Sundar, another rising star joined Pant. Sundar has about him a poise that is inveterate and an assurance that is innate. These twin attributes came into play as the 21 year-old played an impeccable foil to the more ‘experienced’ 23 year-old. The pair frustrated England with a combination of judgment and footwork. Getting to the pitch of the ball to the slow bowlers to smother the spin and exercising caution against the quicks, the pair began a process of consolidation. Pant reached an assiduously compiled half century. Between the time, Pant took guard, and pushed a delivery to long-on before acknowledging the crowd and his teammates, he had consumed 82 deliveries. This was the same application which the left hander had brought to bear in India’s epochal victory at the Gabba a month or two earlier.
As and when the scoreboard commenced to take on hues on respectability, Pant’s colours of possibility began to shine in resplendence. After the indomitable Adam Gilchrist, Pant is undoubtedly the most entertaining wicket keeper batsmen. Even though he has some way to go before he can be on par with the greatest wicket keeping batsman of all time (sorry Sangakkara), he is already showing signs of greatness. Collaring the English bowling he slashed, smote, smoked and swept away with gay abandon.
A phenomenal sequence of events commencing in the 81st over and climaxing in the 83rd over held the viewer in a frenzied grip of fevered imagination. Striding down the track to Anderson, Pant spanked the first ball of the 81st over through long off for a scorching boundary. The very next delivery was sent rocketing past the fielders in the infield. Boundary number 2. The only other eventful delivery of the over was a single off the fifth ball.
Over number 82. Enter Ben Stokes. Exit ball. The first delivery of the 82nd over was pitched slightly outside the off-stump. Pant imperiously picked up the stray delivery and swatted it away through midwicket for a disdainful boundary. Washington Sundar, who at the other end might have felt left out did not want to miss out on some magic of his own. Finding himself at the striker’s end after Pant gathered a single, Sundar threaded two magnificent boundaries of his own displaying a regal sense of timing and placement.
The Indian revival reached a crescendo, with Pant on 89. Jimmy Anderson ran in to bowl the first ball of the 83rd over. The ball was a tad bit short and bowled on and around the off and middle stump line. Rishabh Pant, like a jack in the box, changed his stance, almost dropping down on one knee, before reverse sweeping the ball over the heads of the slip cordon – off balance almost – for an audacious boundary. A popular cricketing website declared that the shot represented an indignity towards Jimmy Anderson. Rubbish! I do not think there is a single batsman in the world worth his salt who would even attempt to foist indignity on this magnificent bowler. Some may term the shot, an impetuosity of youth, while others may lay claim to the impudence of talent. While it could be both, it was in its plain, pure and simple essence, an act of irreverence. An irreverence that is inimitable to Rishabh Pant. An irreverence that is the imprimatur of one of India’s brightest ever prospect. An irreverence that treats a score of 89 as just another combination of numbers in the cosmic world. An irreverence that brings a teeming populace to fill the grounds and keep the game of cricket alive in all formats. An irreverence that no one acknowledges more than the wily genius off whose bowling this improbable shot was executed. Jimmy was neither non-plussed nor deflated. He was just acknowledging. V.V.S.Laxman, waxing eloquent on a TV show at the end of the game emphatically declared that irrespective of the games that may be played throughout the year 2021, this reverse sweep would be the “shot of the year” in his books. It may or may not be. Maybe there might be played an even more contemptuous shot that would take the breath away of friends and foes alike. But it is evident that no shot would be played this year that symbolizes a degree of irreverence attached to Rishabh Pant’s extraordinary reverse sweep.
This was also the same irreverence that saw Pant perish in attempting to smite a short pitched ball off Anderson through the leg side and making contact with the toe end of the bat instead. But before this fault stroke, the marvelous stroke maker reached his third Test Match century by depositing Joe Root over the square leg boundary for a gargantuan six. Irreverence.
This is the irreverence that instils hope when one is down in the depths of despair. This is the irreverence that is revered by so many ordinary mortals.
Stay irreverent, stay cool, Stay Pant!