IPL 2024: Time to celebrate Rishabh Pant’s return to the middle

"Keep smiling" is the dasher’s first reaction. He should be seen in action on 23 March

Rishabh Pant (right) with Ricky Ponting (photo courtesy BCCI)
Rishabh Pant (right) with Ricky Ponting (photo courtesy BCCI)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Will he, won’t he? After the lingering suspense of the past two months, it’s now official that Rishabh Pant has been declared fit as a wicketkeeper-batter for the upcoming IPL 2024 — though it remains to be seen how the Delhi Capitals are planning to use him.

A BCCI press release on Tuesday, 12 March, confirmed secretary Jay Shah’s hints from the day before: ‘After undergoing an extensive 14-month rehab and recovery process, following a life-threatening road mishap on 30 December 2022, near Roorkee, Uttarakhand, Rishabh Pant has now been declared fit as a wicket-keeper batter for the upcoming TATA IPL 2024.’

This must have been music to the ears of the Indian cricket fans as multiple reports on Pant’s comeback date in recent times were quite conflicting — with one even claiming that the entertainer’s return would be delayed till after the Indian Premier League and this could effectively rule him out for the T20 World Cup in June.

A green signal for the marquee event, however, will be subject to his ability to adjust to the rough-and-tumble of competitive cricket and — more importantly — keep performing on a regular basis in the two-month-long IPL.

“If he can play the T20 World Cup for us, that will be a big thing for us. He is a big asset for us,” Shah had said on Monday, 11 March, adding: “The door is open for him. Right now he has begun to (wicket)keep, so we are waiting. Our team is accessing his fitness.”

No prizes for guessing that as of now, it will be a case of wait-and-watch with Pant, as the BCCI medical team headed by Nitin Patel will monitor his progress through the League.

The medical clearance—which came along with announcements that two of the pace bowlers, Prasiddh Krishna (Rajasthan Royals) and Mohammed Shami (Gujarat Titans), were ruled out of the IPL—could not wait. The teams have to finalise their squads and there are only 10 days to go for the tournament.

Come 23 March, when the Capitals begin their campaign with an away game against the Punjab Kings in Mohali, it will be time to really celebrate if Pant figures in the game — irrespective of his role.

It will be easily the biggest comeback life has seen on a cricket pitch since braveheart Yuvraj Singh beat the dreaded cancer to play in the 2012 World T20 in Sri Lanka.

‘’Keep smiling,’’ was the first reaction out of Pant on his Instagram account, flashing his infectious smile.

Deep down, the 26-year-old knows how much it means for him to be back on the pitch. In a video released at the end of January, he said: ‘’The kind of accident I had, [I am] lucky to be alive.’’

To say it has been a harrowing 14 months for him is an understatement — the first photos of a ravaged Pant lying in hospital still make one shudder. It was a painstaking, collaborative effort on the part of the BCCI and the NCA as the cricketer started to recover in phases —– the most crucial part being the ligament reconstruction surgery.

This is what raises doubt about Pant’s keeping abilities in the future, especially in the longer format, as it involves squatting after every ball.

It’s a concern that has been voiced aloud by none less than Ricky Ponting, the Capitals chief coach, in a recent interview with the ICC Review: 'It’s a big decision we’ll have to make because if he is fit, you’d think he’d step straight back into that captaincy role. If he’s not entirely fit and we have to use him in a slightly different role, then we’ve got some decisions to make there.'

The recent hits at the NCA certainly give Ponting a lot of hope, but he is unwilling to commit to a forecast: ‘He’s actually played some practice matches over the last couple of weeks, which has been really encouraging for us. I know he’s worked incredibly hard on his body and his fitness to get back to the level that he’s at now. He’s kept in one of those games, he’s fielded in these games and the batting hasn’t seemingly been an issue for him so far.’

And that's all the former Aussie great would say.

Still, now that Pant has cleared the first hurdle and is a part of the IPL, a clear picture will emerge in another 10 days…

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