What Dinesh Karthik’s successful return means for Rishabh Pant

As you would expect from contemporary wicketkeepers, Rishabh Pant and Dinesh Karthik have intertwined careers. Pant’s Test debut came in England in 2018 after Karthik failed to score too much in the first two Tests, ending one of the latter’s many comebacks in international cricket. On their next visit to England, Pant and Karthik found themselves hitting 5v3 together, trying to save India’s dying World Cup dream.

Now Pant is captain of one of Karthik’s former IPL teams, which is hard to avoid as Karthik is already there. And just as he has roamed the IPL in search of a home, Karthik is all over India’s batting order looking for a role he can define.

Karthik’s latest comeback comes with the best-defined role he’s ever played, which is why Pants performing doesn’t affect his fortune in any way. Three years after his regular return, however, Pant paved the way to embark on a hugely successful test career, but Karthik’s successful return could jeopardize Pant’s chances of slightly compromising the T20 World Cup. But not for the reasons you might think.

It has nothing to do with them being wicketkeepers. In India’s Plan A, they compete for two completely different roles. Karthik has come in for a specific role where the team wants to make sure he doesn’t come in until the 14th. Pant, on the other hand, is an enforcer earlier in the innings, was given a little more time to bring himself in. There is a strong temptation to open with him as well, which he did so successfully in junior cricket, but it’s not easy to give him a point there with so many other top-ranking batters around.

Only in a less than ideal scenario where India fails to find another finisher with Hardik Pandya does Pant or Suryakumar Yadav play the part of that tracker. Now that India has found the ideal combination – Pandya, Karthik and Ravindra Jadeja or Axar Patel making up the lower middle class – Pant does not have that fallback option. Karthik fitting into the role of the finisher is great news for India, but not so great for Pant and other mid-range aspirants.

Now imagining that the eminently possible scenario of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli is untouchable, and with KL Rahul the first man to walk into an India T20 batting lineup, there is only one spot left in a full India- batting line- for Pant, Suryakumar, Sanju Samson, Shreyas Iyer and Ishan Kishan to compete for. Under this team management, which likes clear roles, it’s hard to imagine any of them pushing Karthik out and playing out of position.

Pant has a lot in store for him for that number 4 slot. He is the best wicketkeeper as far as keeping matters, and despite many documented struggles, he still has no bad marks. He is one of only 10 players to average over 30, scoring over 150 in the recently concluded IPL season. Eight of them scored 300 points or more, and of those eight, Pant was the only one without a single 50-plus score.

Which means there are no visible “match-winning” innings, as his genius hasn’t had the length or recency bias that traditionally remains in the minds of observers. These numbers suggest remarkable consistency, but unfortunately the one in which you took down the opponent’s main waist-defying weapon won’t stick in your memory if you don’t score an 80 or complete a chase. Not that Pant plans to score just 30s, but the pass rate he went with — a marked upgrade from his last two seasons — risked getting out any minute. Obviously his teams want him to play in a specific way, and it’s okay if he goes out chasing fast runs as long as he’s made sure the finisher doesn’t come in until after the 13th over or so.

There’s no denying that the broad line has been working against Pant lately, but he won’t be negligent about it. He will team up with Rahul Dravid and other coaches to counter the tactic. The international series against South Africa was obviously not great for Pant, but this team management is not going to make any hasty decisions. Pant also happens to be a left-handed batter, which works to his advantage as India continues with a top three of Rohit, Rahul and Kohli.

Whether Rohit and Kohli should both be in the XI is a story for another day. The expected conditions at the World Cup and their experience in those conditions work in their favour. Faster, bouncy fields can take some getting used to, and T20 World Cups are notorious for teams that are knocked out early. That said, is it a luxury to have two similar batters who aren’t quick to score in the middle overs?

That’s a tough and unenviable decision for Rohit and Dravid, but if both Rohit and Kohli are certain starters, Pant and Suryakumar will likely fight for that last spot in the batting formation. It’ll be tough for one of them to sit outside, but India will be glad they’ve found a specialist finisher and won’t have to push one of their mid-overs enforcers into a death-overs role.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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