Nobody is taking anybody's place

Interview/ Rishabh Pant, cricketer, india

In a World Cup year, a handful of Indian batsmen are jockeying for a place in the team that heads to England. The youngest among them is Rishabh Pant. Just months into his international career, he is staking his claim to be the team's regular wicketkeeper—replacing the mighty M.S. Dhoni. Though the team management might go with Dhoni's experience, there just could be a chance for Pant to play as a pure batsman. And, as the second T20 against New Zealand on February 8 showed, the two bat well together. They finished the match with more than an over to go.

In an interview with THE WEEK, Pant says he idolised Dhoni growing up and that the senior keeper has helped him a lot, especially in the shorter formats. Pant also talks about his performances in England and Australia, the support of his family and his ultimate goal in international cricket. Excerpts from an interview:

At 21, you have played in a Test series in Australia, where you did well with both bat and gloves, and also became the first Indian wicketkeeper to score a century against Australia in Australia. Do you feel like a celebrity now?

Yes, I feel absolutely great. I had always dreamt of playing at this level when I was a child, just learning the ropes. But this is not the time for me to focus on my feelings. There will be many more occasions to celebrate. I have a long way to go before I reach the goal that I have set for myself. My career has only just begun and the goal is still far, far away.

People would tell my father that it would set a wrong example for other children if he, being an educator, let me play cricket. It was only when I started playing at the state level that people began to take me seriously.

What is the goal?

To play for India in all three formats for as long as I want to.

For as long as you want to?

Absolutely. If I keep performing the way I am, then hopefully I can do that. There is no bigger kick than playing for the country and making it proud.

You were named the ICC's emerging player of 2018. How did that feel?

Excellent! To be rewarded for the efforts you put in is a great feeling.

What was your mental state like when you scored your first Test century, in England?

It was the happiest day of my life on the field. When playing, my mind was blank and I was prepared for anything that came my way. I just continued playing each ball as it came, not thinking, not strategising, not pre-planning. Anyway, in Test cricket you cannot pre-plan. But I could decidedly turn the tide in my favour, against all odds. People say it is difficult to score runs in England, but to make a hundred, especially when we were losing and down, was indeed special and it made for a great learning [experience].

What was your first impression of sharing the dressing room with someone like Virat Kohli?

I have grown up watching Virat, Mahi bhai (Dhoni) and other stalwarts play brilliantly on television. When I was 18, I got a chance to play with Mahi bhai in a T20. I batted with him for only five balls, but even that was overwhelming. When players like him pat you on the back, it feels great and it is motivating.

A day before I scored my first 100, Virat bhaiya called me aside and told me that it was not compulsory that I would get the necessary experience after playing 100 Test matches. I could make my mark in just two, he said. He also told me how to approach the game, especially in Test cricket, and how I must keep my mind open so as to not let anything negative affect me. I took his advice seriously and scored a century the very next day. It was the best feeling ever.

What was the mood like in the dressing room after your first 100?

Battle mode: Pant was at his aggressive best in the third T20 against New Zealand | AP Battle mode: Pant was at his aggressive best in the third T20 against New Zealand | AP

Everyone was happy, but there was no celebration because we had lost. And I am a strong team man. My individual victories mean nothing if the team loses.

There are quite a few similarities between you and Kohli. You both are Delhi boys, confident, and both of you lost your fathers early. How much has he influenced you?

He is on a different level altogether. I am nowhere close to him. The only thing I am trying to do is to learn from him and I am doing that with all my [heart].

When you were young, your father gifted you a bat worth Rs14,000. What has your family's role been in shaping your career?

It has been immense. My father always wanted me to play cricket and it is because of him that I began. At the age of 11, I told him I wanted to play professionally. He agreed immediately. And that is why I could play with so much confidence and joy. Given that my hometown is in Roorkee, where there were no good cricketing [associations], we had to move to Delhi. I used to travel a lot for tournaments across India and my mother would accompany me at all times. I knew early on that I wanted to make cricket my career. This was despite the fact that I was a good student—my scores were about 70 per cent across subjects and some of my family members even thought I could crack the IIT-JEE entrance. They felt I was brilliant because I could get decent marks despite playing cricket most of the time. So, it was not that I chose cricket because I was not good in academics. I simply chose it for the love of it.

So there was no scepticism from anyone?

My father used to own a school and, so, when I decided to pursue cricket professionally, many people started asking questions. They would tell my father that it would set a wrong example for other children if he, being an educator, let me play cricket. It was only when I started playing state-level cricket that people began to take me seriously.

I was initially studying in my family-owned school, but I would be found more at home than in school. So, they moved me to another school.

What did you do with your first salary?

I first made money from a cricket match when I was barely 9 or 10. I gave it all to my mother, who bought me a fantastic cricket bat with it.

As a budding cricketer, which player did you idolise?

Adam Gilchrist, M.S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli.

A piece of advice by your seniors that has helped you on the field.

Everyone is trying to help me out. When I was playing ODIs and T20s, Mahi bhai used to help me a lot, both on and off the field. He always asks me not to overreact to anything. He tells me to simply listen, analyse and then, if it is important, implement it. He says, 'Do not be too affected; just let things be.' When we were in Australia, Parthiv Patel always came to my rescue.

Your banter with Australian captain Tim Paine was much talked about.

We were trying to annoy each other, but I don't know who actually got annoyed in the end. Every wicketkeeper does the same thing. They try to disturb the opposition's batsman. Paine was trying to do that. So, I was trying the same when he or anyone from his team came to bat. It got bigger after that and then his wife posted the picture on Instagram (Pant with Paine's children). But we were not saying anything personal or offensive. We were within the boundaries of the code of conduct and were just trying to distract the batsmen.

And he offered you a stint with the Hobart Hurricanes?

I am playing for my country and I know I am good enough. I don't have to play the Big Bash. Nothing changes after his comments. Rather than focusing on what he wants to say to me, I am more focused on what I want to say to him.

How did the Australian experience change you?

I did not change one bit. The game changes, and I only have to adapt and improve myself as per the game. I am only focusing on my personal goals and what the team needs of me.

The World Cup is coming up. Do you think you will play?

I focus on the present. As of now, I am not thinking about it.

Who is your favourite wicketkeeper?

Mahi bhai. The recognition he is bringing to wicketkeeping is classic.

Knowing that you could be competing with Dhoni for a World Cup spot, how has your relationship with him been?

We have a good bonding, on and off the field. He is a legend, whereas I am a youngster who is still learning his moves. Nobody is taking anybody's place. There is no comparison between him and me.

Which format is easier to keep in? Critics have questioned your abilities against spin.

Nothing is easy in international cricket. Every format is comfortable for me. Critics may analyse, but all I consider is the kind of bowling I will face. Not the pitch, not the ground, not the weather, not anything else. Also, I think it was good for me that I was exposed to the IPL early on. I learnt how to play in a situation that was different to Tests and ODIs. I felt less under pressure and more confident. Also, sharing the same dressing room with international players from different countries gives one confidence.

What is your training regimen and your diet?

My workout is focused on my lower body right now and, in terms of diet, I am strictly following the low-carb and high-protein diet. I love food a lot, but ever since I started playing professionally, I have had to stay away from all junk, which is closest to my heart. I am a die-hard non-vegetarian and absolutely love butter chicken and chilly chicken. But, I have to limit [the intake].

What do you do when not playing?

I get high on adventure sports and drive my car. My latest muse is the yellow Mustang. Also, I spend time with family. I am missing it all so much right now.

Are you good at any other sport?

You name it, I play it. I am super good at badminton, snooker, table tennis, lawn tennis, volleyball, and for that matter, every sport except basketball. That is the only thing I cannot wrap my head around.

Who do you most get along with in the dressing room?

I think I get along just fine with all of them. I like to think of myself as the prankster of the team. I am chilled out and make people happy wherever I go. I love to laugh and try to make others laugh, too.

What was your most memorable prank?

Once, around 2.30am, we woke up a player and told him that everyone had already left and were waiting for him in the bus. He quickly took a shower and [got ready]. Only when he was all set to leave did he realise that it was just a prank. I can never forget the look on his face.