When Ishan Kishan strode out after the second rain break, the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium was bathed in bright sunshine for the first time on Saturday. As Pakistan fast bowler Haris Rauf ran in, Kishan stood at the non-strikers end along one of the long shadows, an apt metaphor for his career.
There is just one question that shadows him, despite the double hundred, despite the flurry of fifties recently: Does he have the mental tenacity and the game to sparkle under pressure against a high-quality attack? It’s an unfair question in many ways, but often asked at the start of the careers about flamboyant batsmen, who perpetually dally with risk. A doubt invariably pops up: do they have the substance or is it all window dressing?
In what was probably his most mature knock for India, Ishan Kishan answered that question in some style. There was confidence in his shot-selections against quality bowling, rationality in innings-building, clarity in pacing the knock, until hampered by what seemed like cramps, he got out, going for quick runs. One knock isn’t likely to silence the critics, but it’s certainly a good start.
He grabbed his chance and made 82 off 81 balls, a mature knock when the team was under the cosh. Hardik Pandya was an able partner. Kishan was batting at No.5, an unfamiliar spot for him but he adapted to make the most of the opportunity. Hardik and Ishan added 138 for the fifth wicket out of a total of 266. The rest of the Indian batsmen struggled on either side of the partnership and that tells the story of how good Ishan and Pandya were in the middle in a high-pressure game.
Less than 12 months ago, Kishan was seen as India’s first-choice opener. His innings of 210 off just 131 balls at Chattogram last December was seen as the template India ought to follow in One-Day Internationals. Being a left-handed opener and a wicket-keeper with a fearless approach when opening the innings, Kishan ticked all the boxes. His blitz made the opening pair of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma look pedestrian.
5️⃣0️⃣ for @ishankishan51 👏👏
The southpaw counterattacks while cruising to a well-made half century!
Brilliant innings under pressure by the keeper-batter.
— Star Sports (@StarSportsIndia) September 2, 2023
But by January, the very next game after scoring a double-century, Ishan was demoted to the middle-order as India set sights on the Rohit-Shubman Gill partnership at the top.
There was a reason he wasn’t given a longer run at the top of the order. In his short career, when the whiteball seamed around, Kishan had shown a tendency to struggle. He didn’t seem to trust his defence. He believed in playing attacking shots to get out of trouble.
On Saturday he had to negotiate a period when Pakistan fast bowlers were putting on an exhibition of seam bowling. It was a litmus test for Kishan.
At the other end stood Gill, who had hijacked his spot at the top, and was enduring a tough time in the middle with Shaheen Shah Afridi and Naseem Shah on fire. And before Gill, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli had already been undone by Afridi. The returning Shreyas Iyer, had perished to an ill-time pull which ended in the hands of Fakhar Zaman stationed inside the circle. And in the six balls that Kishan faced before the second rain break, he didn’t induce much confidence either.
But off the first ball he faced after the restart, he decided to counter-attack, upper cutting fast bowler Haris Rauf for a six over the cover region. In the next over facing Naseem, Kishan would be in all sorts of trouble. But Kishan was prepared to swallow his pride and not do anything silly. Had KL Rahul been fit, he would not have played this match. And batting at No 5 for the first time, he made a statement of maturity. For this not an innings where he just swung the bat to get out of trouble. Rather he batted in different gears in a format which hasn’t been his bread and butter.
With Hardik Pandya for company, Ishan dug India out of a hole. When the two began their partnership in the 14th over, India were reeling at 66/4. In overcast conditions, Rohit’s decision to bat first appeared foolhardy every time Pakistan struck blows. Hardik and Ishan took calculative risks. When Pakistan brought on spinners Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz, they took on them gleefully whenever opportunity presented itself and kept rotating the strike. The left-right combo made life difficult for the Pakistani spinners.
With Pakistan continuing to attack in search of wickets and only four fielders manning the boundary in the second powerplay, Kishan and Pandya didn’t panic when they consumed dot balls. In fact, there were 56 dot balls in their partnership of 138 that came in 141 deliveries, but what stood out was how they compensated for it.
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On a two-paced wicket, they carefully went about taking India to a total that could give their bowlers something to workaround. Both were prepared to bat according to the situation.
A big hitter against spinners, Pandya was prepared to defend against Nawaz whenever the left-arm spinner tempted him with flighted deliveries. It also helped that Pakistan were sloppy in the field and helped release the pressure.
The only criticism would be that they threw away their wickets when close to a century and plenty of overs left. Kishan who started to struggle to run between the wickets, perished in search of a boundary.
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