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Rap on the knuckles not good enough – Pant owes it to himself

Talent is either the most underrated quality in a player or the most overrated depending on which school of thought appeals to you. The Ericsson-Gladwell-Syed-Golvin school believes (and I am simplifying here) that practice is the more important; traditionalists took the primacy of talent so much for granted that they didn’t bother to write books about it.

Anders Ericsson is a psychologist and professor at the Florida State University who spoke of “deliberate practice”, a concept which Malcolm Gladwell misinterpreted while writing about his “ten thousand hours” that led to top level success. Matthew Syed, English table tennis international and journalist, preferred the term “purposeful practice” while Geoff Glovin unambiguously named his book Talent is Overrated.

Three elements go into the making of an international sportsman, and you need all of them, even if the proportions differ. Talent, practice and luck. Talented players who don’t work hard are no different from the untalented who practice till the cows come home but can’t get anywhere.

Next big thing

Every generation produces players who promise to become “the next big thing” but either fade out or cede the ground. A good example is Tamil Nadu’s Rangachari Madhavan. In the mid-80s he was seen as the coming man. Many chose him as one of the players of the following decade.

Playing for India Under-25 against the Englishmen, he made a century and the visitors were beaten by an innings. The other centurion in the match, Mohammad Azharuddin, went on to play 99 Tests and lead India in three World Cups.

Nine of that team played for the country. Madhavan was left-handed, elegant, and could bowl too, but fell short in one of the three areas, certainly not in talent. Perhaps it was luck.

Kapil Dev, who had made his debut a few years earlier, spoke highly of his friend Yograj Singh with whom he was expected to share the new ball for a generation. It didn’t happen, Yograj finishing with just one Test. Kapil Dev often said that Yograj was the more talented bowler, but he lacked the work ethic. To paraphrase the golfing great Jack Nicklaus, “it is a lack of being able to repeat good plays consistently that frustrates most players. And the only answer to that is practice.”

Too mild

So where is Rishabh Pant going wrong? He is talented. He has the wicketkeeper’s job. He is still a few days from his 22nd birthday. He has Test match centuries in England and Australia, yet his white ball cricket, at which he was expected to be a natural, is disappointing.

His coach Ravi Shastri has promised that the next time he shows poor judgement in choosing the ball to hit, or the stroke to play, he will get a “rap on the knuckles.” This is too mild. There is nothing worse in sport than wasted talent. Shastri himself is more aware of this than most. He played 80 Tests, going from a promising left arm spinner on his debut to a gutsy opener with centuries against the fastest bowlers of his time. He didn’t throw anything away.

The three elements we spoke of earlier can be subdivided further. Talent also includes the ability to judge, to adjust, to be match-aware, to know what not to do; hard work can also be about practising restraint. Luck is already on Pant’s side. He is not the best wicketkeeper in the country, but force of circumstances catapulted him to where he is. He cannot afford to throw it all away.

Surrender

I once asked Bishan Bedi why he of all the left arm spinners of his time, many of international class, held down an India spot for so long. His spontaneous response was, “I was lucky”. That is gratitude. Then he said, “I surrendered myself to my craft.” It is a beautiful thought; Pant must surrender himself to his craft.

He can also learn from his own captain. A decade ago, Virat Kohli was seen as “the next best thing” who was on the verge of throwing it all away. Today he is the most focused of players, the finest all round batsman in the world. Talent existed. Practice honed it. And increasingly, the role of luck was reduced.

There is too the example of Pant’s fast-bowling team-mates. I think one reason why India has such a fine crop is not just that they have produced more bowlers, but less talent has been wasted compared to earlier times.

At any given time, only 15 or 18 players have the ability, the form and the potential to be in the national squad. This, from a pool of around 700 or so first class cricketers available. A generation of middle order batsmen missed out in the Sachin Tendulkar era. Likewise spinners in the Bedi era. Sport is like that.

The odds are not always in favour of the talented. The harder I work, the luckier I get, said the golfer Arnold Palmer. Pant can learn from that.

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