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Wicket woes

Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishan or Sanju Samson: Who will fill the wicket-keeper spot vacated by Dhoni?

Filling Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s shoes as a wicket-keeper would certainly be a great challenge for Team India selectors after the 2019 World Cup in England and Wales. Not because India lacks talent but because a lot of time has been wasted on ensuring that the young brigade consisting of Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson are made to wait till next year’s WC despite being in top form.

There is a belief in cricket that a player should be given a chance when he is in top form, rather than tiring him out in the middle.

Take the example of Delhi’s wicket-keeper batsman Pant. After making a name for himself in the 2016 U-19 WC and the Indian Premier League (IPL) that followed, Pant was hailed as a worthy replacement for Dhoni in the years to follow.

In fact, the 2016-17 domestic season was a turning point in his career as he amassed 972 runs from the 12 innings he played. His 107-plus strike rate along with 81-plus average was enough to send signals to the wise men (read selectors) of BCCI that here is a batsman who hits as hard as Dhoni and who is as reliable behind wickets as India’s former skipper.

Pant was soon rewarded for his efforts with a place in the Indian T20I team to face England but unfortunately didn’t get any chance to perform at this highest level as there were only deliveries left when his chance to bat came.

His performances in the Ranji Trophy also earned him the role of Delhi’s captain for the Vijay Hazare trophy in his first full season in the Indian domestic circuit.

There were murmurs in cricketing circles that Pant was politely told by a senior Team India player during his lone international outing to “not get too ambitious and wait for his turn till 2019 WC”.

Sure enough, he did not get any call from the selectors then onwards.

He, however, continued his good form and even captained Delhi for the Vijay Hazare trophy towards the end of the season. Pant also scored 366 runs in 14 innings for Delhi Daredevils at an average of 26 and a strike-rate of over 150.

A strike-rate of 107.28 in a first-class season and a career strike-rate of 101 in this format bears testament to his prowess. And this certainly can’t be called a fluke!

His form suffered in the coming season as he failed to score many runs for Delhi. This was probably also a result of the pressure of not getting picked for the national team despite being in contention for a place for the Champions Trophy as a reward for his domestic performances. Though he was later picked for India’s tour to West Indies, he was confined to the bench.

And when Pant travelled with the India A team to South Africa to take part in the tri-series involving the hosts and Afghanistan A, it was expected that his selection was only a formality for the upcoming Sri Lanka tour.

To everyone’s surprise, the 19-year-old Delhiite didn’t figure in the selectors’ scheme of things as “they were looking to groom him as a complete player by giving him more chances in the T20s”.

Pant has been in scintillating form in the ongoing IPL 2018 and the current holder of the ‘Orange Cap’. Despite his whirlwind century (128 not out off 63 balls) against Sunrisers Hyderabad last week, selectors have not given him a place in India ODI and T20 squads for the tour of England and Ireland.

This despite the fact that he has become the second youngest player to score 100 and youngest to score 1,000 runs in the IPL.

Ishan gets MI backing
On the other hand, two-time IPL champion team Mumbai Indians have no doubts about who is India’s future after Dhoni. And picking Ishant Kishan ahead of Mumbai Ranji skipper Aditya Tare was not just a challenging decision but a bold move in the middle of the IPL season.

Ishan was picked for his fearless batting across formats. Even his first-class highest of 273 came off just 336 balls courtesy 21 fours and 14 sixes in the last season. It’s this big-hitting ability that made MI to go all out after this U-19 star in the IPL auctions. And a price tag of Rs 6.2 crore says it all — why MI never allowed Royal Challengers Bangalore to go away with this young talented stumper.

If insiders are to be believed, then Ishan impressed Mumbai talent hunters by hitting seven sixes in a trial match conducted just before the IPL auctions this time around. This Jharkhand youngster was amongst the three domestic stumpers called up for trials there and all sixes that he hit travelled to the top tier on the leg side of the ground, which is considered to be one of the longest in India.

His selection proved so right on the night he was sent at a crucial juncture against hosts Kolkata Knight Riders at Eden Gardens. In a game that Mumbai simply had to win to keep their play-off hopes alive, Ishan stepped in with the team searching for momentum at 62 for two in nine overs.
And when, 30 minutes later (after 34 balls), he was returning to the pavilion, there was complete chaos inside which the home team never anticipated. Ishan unleashed complete terror in KKR’s camp with his 21-ball 62. His skipper Rohit Sharma, himself a proven hard-hitter, was a mere spectator on the other end during this 82-run stand on a day by contributing just 18.

Samson and art of batting
Sanju Samson, the oldest amongst the three, has the most superior batting technique.

Already described as Team India’s next big star by none other than Australian legend Shane Warne, this Rajasthan Royals stumper has already scored 379 runs in 12 matches this season at an impressive strike rate of 140. Like Pant, Samson has only been given chance to play for Team India in 2015 during T20 game against Zimbabwe. Since then he has also been overlooked despite his consistent show in IPL as well as in the domestic circuit for his team, Kerala.

Samson is only 23, but has been part of first class Indian cricket for five years. It was in April 2013 that he was first, at the age of just 18, sent in the middle to secure a win for Royals against Kings XI, Punjab. And he did it in style… Playing a match-winning knock on his debut and becoming youngest batsman to make an IPL 50, he subsequently was given an award for being the best young player of the season.

The great spare remained a spark during the following seasons. Despite many gutsy performances by Samson, he was only given chances to represent India A, apart from that lone T20 appearance for the national team. Whereas he saw his other Team A mates — Hardik Pandya, Karun Nair, Shreyas Iyer and Yuzvendra Chahal — getting much bigger responsibility with Team India.

Coming into 2018 IPL season for Royals again (from Daredevils), Samson amassed his career best 627 runs (seven matches) in the domestic season. His unbeaten 92 against Virat Kohli RCB was another sign that this season might be the one after which he become the top contender for a slot in the national team.

But then our wise men need to handle these youngsters with utmost care. Whether Dhoni retires now or carries on till 2019 or beyond, the stumpers in line to replace him can be given a chance in between in a bid to keep them motivated.