Why India opened with Rishabh Pant
Short answer 

Rishabh Pant is India’s best LHB bet in the first 15 overs of a T20 game, and the team management appears willing go to any length to get him in their World Cup XI. This is why, despite the performances of his middle-order backups – Suryakumar Yadav, Shreyas Iyer, Deepak Hooda, and Sanju Samson (all right-handers), Pant always regains his spot, and not just his spot but also the wicketkeeping gloves even when Ishan Kishan and Dinesh Karthik are in the side. 

(Read: The Rahul Dravid Reset – Part I on what India have learnt from Kohli-Shastri’s mistakes and Part II on how India are setting up for the World Cup)

The Problem

Much of the talk about Pant being India’s best LHB option is still based on eye tests and IPL numbers. He has absolutely dismal numbers at the international level, averaging only 23 runs per wicket and striking at a paltry 1.25 runs per ball. These returns are simply too low, especially for a sample size of 43 innings, to keep your competitors out when they are firing on all cylinders at every opportunity.

Therefore, the team must demonstrate that Pant merits a World Cup spot based solely on the numbers, rather than just on a hypothetical advantage, no matter how compelling it may be.

How India plan to go about this and unlock Pant’s full limited-overs potential is what brings us to the long answer. 

Long Answer

If a player’s form or confidence is suffering, you can either stick with him or give him a break, depending on what works best for the individual. Likewise, if a player is unsure of his role, you can define it better for him. 

Rishabh Pant, however, is no longer troubled with any of it. Instead, his problems stem from opponents exploiting a flaw in his batting style by bowling wide and either limiting or dismissing him with a defensive off-side field.

There are two options for the player and his team to counter this: work on his technique to improve his ability to counter the wide line attack, or move him to a role where that weakness cannot be exploited as ruthlessly as it is now. The problem with the first approach is that the World Cup is only three months away, and there is no guarantee that the technical issue can be resolved in such a short period, or that even if it is, it will not introduce any new vulnerabilities.

So India appear to have struck a balance between the two: aim to crack the latter while simultaneously working on a long-term solution: improving Pant’s technique (as seen in the pre-match visuals during the SA home series). It’s a smart strategy because they’re not putting all their eggs in one basket.

How the batting order change mitigates Pant’s wide line issue

With 5 fielders allowed outside following the powerplay, it is easier to counter batters with serious shortcomings. In Pant’s case, for example, opposition bowling units can continue to aim for the 8-9th stump line with a minimum of three fielders out on the off side: deep point, long-off, and third man. Teams with top-tier bowlers can even go all-in by having one more fielder at the deep on the off-side at deep cover. A middle-order batter who comes in to bat between Overs 7-9 and has a wide line weakness can only achieve so much in such a situation.

On the other hand, an opener will not only have to deal with only two fielders outside the circle, but will also have the runs cushion after the powerplay to take more calculated risks. A player like Pant will almost always be well ahead of the game if he gets through the powerplay, which will cause him to look at the middle overs and the level and frequency of risks he is required to take in a very different way than he would on 0*(0) coming in at 75/2 off 9. The team can also afford to absorb his failures and adapt accordingly this way, rather than hoping he adapts to the team’s needs.

There was a brief display of how the powerplay side of this setting could work in India’s favour even in the second T20I: Pant was able to run one through the third man for a four and one over long-off for a four; off-side boundary shot attempts that would have either not happened or given him one run if not for the powerplay. 

Can Pant, however, be a successful opener?

To begin with, opening is currently the easiest position to bat in limited-overs cricket. Aside from making his U-19 debut as an opener, there’s a reason Pant is so effective in Tests: most fielders are inside the circle. Making him open in T20s is India’s attempt to provide him with a similar environment, one that creates time and has fewer outfielders to beat.

It is critical not to lose sight of the big picture here: Pant was demoted down the order in the IPL in an attempt to use his power and crack the tougher middle-order role, but the trade-off isn’t worth it if that role threatens to consume him.

Will India not miss out on a middle order LHB?

There are two ways to create an LHB presence in Overs 7-14: position left-handers at No.3-5 or allow your top order left-handers to settle in and come through the powerplay to control the middle phase, as David Warner or Chris Gayle do. While the latter risks losing the batter to the new ball early on, it is far more effective when the LHB passes the Powerplay test. 

Settled batters can take down spinners more effectively because they are more familiar with the deck and, courtesy of having generated a high SR already, also have the luxury of selecting the right balls to attack. Middle-order specialists, on the other hand, almost always have to start accelerating earlier than they are comfortable against a spread-out field, which makes the role the most difficult in the format.

If this experiment is successful, India will not only have a left-hand presence in the middle, but one that is more consistent and destructive.

So, how will this new experiment affect India’s World Cup XI?

If the trial doesn’t work, Pant will almost certainly be demoted to the middle order or lose his spot to Suryakumar Yadav or Virat Kohli. If it works, one of two things will happen: either nothing changes and a more confident Pant returns to his normal role, or KL Rahul is pushed down to No. 3 to make room for Pant, with Kohli and Yadav vying for the final No. 4 spot. (Read: Why the second T20I against England was important for Indian cricket fans)

In any case, India will go into the World Cup knowing that they gave Pant every chance he needed to develop into a dangerous LHB option in the top four. And that is all a think tank can do: provide its players with a stable environment in which to succeed. It is entirely up to the player whether or not he takes it.

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