Indian cricket’s rapidly-rising box-office draw Rishabh Pant owned the center-stage in Virat Kohli’s landmark 100th Test, hammering Sri Lankan bowlers into submission with an enthralling 96 as the hosts reached a commanding 357 for 6 on the opening day of the first Test in Mohali. The 5,000 odd spectators, who had come to watch Kohli perform on a grand stage, saw one of the most flamboyant batters in recent history make a mockery of an average Sri Lankan attack. He was especially brutal when it came to going after left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya (28-2-107-2), who was taken for 22 in one over.
The deathly silence after Kohli’s shock exit for a well-made 45 was there for barely a second and a half. Because at that point entered the stockily built 24-year-old from India’s engineering city of Rourkee and that was followed by a deafening roar which showed his popularity. On Kohli’s day, he had completely overshadowed the legend. And those who came for Kohli decided to stay back and savor Pant’s mayhem as he started with a signature lofted six off Embuldeniya over the mid-wicket fence. In just over one and a half sessions, Pant nearly reached his fourth hundred in Test cricket before veteran Suranga Lakmal (1/63), in his last international series, breached his defense.
There were nine fours and four sixes in his 97-ball knock and one couldn’t but feel for the young man who looked completely devastated after another near-miss, the fifth time that he has gotten out in the 90s. The walk back to the pavilion took an eternity as it seemed that one would need someone to drag him out. But coach Rahul Dravid and skipper Rohit Sharma’s decision to send him at number five to bring in the left-hander’s advantage against a left-arm spinner had paid the rich dividends they were hoping for.
Embuldeniya didn’t actually bowl as badly as his figures might suggest and was pitching the ball up, putting his body into the deliveries, and getting them to spin away from the right-handers. Pant being a southpaw obviously diminished his advantage to an extent and then his decision to stand at least a couple of yards outside the crease made the difference. He turned a lot of good length deliveries into over-pitched ones and Embuldeniya, along with other spinners like Charith Asalanka and Dhananjaya de Silva (1/47), also suffered. The one-handed sixes, which he can now hit on public demand, were in full display for the motley crowd.
It also helped that Dimuth Karunaratne’s mindset was defensive from the word go since Rohit Sharma (29) and Mayank Agarwal (33) had a brisk 50-run stand. Once a fielding side skipper stations a deep point, deep square leg and deep fine leg within the first hour of the first day, one can get a sense that he has already thrown the towel and playing a waiting game of cutting down boundaries. Even then, Pant found the gaps with very little difficulty when he took guard in the 44th over after Kohli and Hanuma Vihari (58 off 128 balls) had a 90-run stand.
Vihari made good use of his chance in place of veteran Cheteshwar Pujara and looked in control during his stand with Kohli before he inside edged Vishwa Fernando’s delivery onto the stumps. It was a perfect setting to score a second Test hundred but Vihari let it slip and became Fernando’s only scalp of the day. A total of 170 for 3 is a neither here nor there and a lot of batters will be caught in two minds – whether to defend or to attack.