When the full extent of Shreyas Iyer’s shoulder injury became known, the Delhi Capitals management went into conclave to decide who would lead them on-field this season. A few days later, the white smoke emerged, and it spelled out Rishabh Pant.
This might have seemed like a bold, even curious, decision given that Pant is just 23 years old and will be leading a squad that contains four previous IPL captains in Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Steven Smith and R Ashwin. The more cautious, more traditional option would have been to leave Pant as vice-captain under one of this more experienced quartet. But caution is not the way for the new Delhi.
After six years in a row of inept failure, they ditched the Daredevils name, said goodbye to Gautam Gambhir as captain, and more importantly built a team that attacked head-on. Dhawan and Prithvi Shaw went hard at the powerplay, Kagiso Rabada led an attack that never let teams settle, and Pant himself made the middle and later overs when Delhi were batting unmissable – only Andre Russell scored more runs at a better strike rate.
Last year, Delhi’s bowling doubled down on the aggression. Anrich Nortje, who bowled five of the six fastest balls in the tournament, added powerplay threat to Rabada’s death overs (and Super Over) mastery, with the miserly Axar Patel complementing Ashwin and Marcus Stoinis.
But the same could not be said of the batting. As the wins started drying up towards the end of the group stage, Delhi slowly shifted towards a more conservative line-up and approach, with Dhawan and Stoinis having to perform superlatively to counterbalance the caution of Rahane, Iyer, and, most confusingly of all, Pant himself.
A scoring rate of under seven RPO, and fewer sixes in 14 games than he managed in four Tests against England, is not what you pick Rishabh Pant for. It seemed from the outside as though the initial omission from the World Cup squad and relentless chatter about his “recklessness”, including from India head coach Ravi Shastri, had inhibited him.
Thank Thomas Lord, it was not so.
Pant roared back to prominence and regained his place in all three international formats not through holding back, but re-committing to aggressive batting of a type and a level that few others can match. His fitness work during the Australia tour has given him greater stamina, even more explosive power, and a more stable base from which to unleash it. He can hit the ball further to more parts of the ground more consistently – which given his success already is an equally terrifying and thrilling prospect. We haven’t even mentioned his vastly improved wicket-keeping.
And while Pant is a player of rare ability, he is no closed-off batting monomaniac. He is relentlessly energetic, has shown he is happy to ignore personal milestones in service of the team’s needs, and is starting to bring MS Dhoni-like tactical advice to his presence behind the stumps.
And although he has never captained an IPL team, he is no novice – he captained Delhi in the List A Vijay Hazare Trophy aged 19 and the first-class Ranji Trophy just after his 20th birthday, taking them to the final of the latter.
Iyer deserves huge credit for managing Delhi’s transition from laughing stock to serious force, especially given that he took over partway through a season at almost the same age that Pant is now. But with Pant at the top of his game (so far), leading a balanced and powerful squad and with an astute and aggressive coach in Ricky Ponting, there may be no better captain for a Delhi Capitals team that will only succeed by being true to their entertaining selves.