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A mature wine in a new bottle

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Parthiv_Patel_India_cricketIndia always had a problem with wicket-keepers in the last few years. They tried as many as eight wicket-keepers between 2000 and 2005, before settling down with Mahendra Singh Dhoni. When the legend retired from Test cricket in 2014, Wriddhiman Saha was ready to carry forward the responsibility with the big gloves and he successfully fulfilled all the expectations in the last couple of years.

However, when he developed a thigh strain before the third Test of the ongoing series against England at Mohali, the selectors again faced the dilemma of choosing a replacement for him. On one hand, there was the 19-year old Delhi keeper-batsman Rishabh Pant, who had been creating waves in domestic cricket with his batting form; on the other hand, there were a couple of more seasoned options in Dinesh Karthik and Naman Ojha, who had sufficient international experience under their belt.

Taking a third option, the selectors chose to go for the 31-year old Gujarat captain and wicket-keeper Parthiv Patel, who had made his Test debut for India way back in 2002 as a 17-year old.  

 

The inclusion of Parthiv Patel in the team came as a surprise. When the team management was looking to build a young team for the future, many people thought that the selection of Parthiv Patel was a step backwards. Although the international experience under his belt played a part in his selection, the major reason was his fine domestic form with the bat. He had just struck a century for Gujarat against Madhya Pradesh in a Ranji Trophy match a few days before his selection, and that cleared any doubts about his abilities if the selectors had any.

Finally, his eight years of exile from international cricket were over and he was determined to make it count.

Wicket-keepers tend to bat lower down the order in Test cricket in order to give their bodies ample rest after keeping wickets for a long period of time. However, the injury to KL Rahul just before the Mohali Test meant India didn’t have a proper opener to partner Murali Vijay. While Karun Nair and Ajinkya Rahane have opened the batting multiple times in their careers, either of them shifting up the order would have weakened the middle order. Opening comes naturally to Parthiv, and hence he was handed over the additional responsibility of opening the batting as well.

It looked like it was too much for a man making his comeback after eight long years, but this is international cricket and this is how things go. If you have to prove yourself, you need to show your abilities in the toughest of conditions. After all, champions don’t complain; they take adversity in their stride and overcome all odds to shine like a bright star on the horizon.

Parthiv Patel proved that he is a champion. He went about his business like he had been playing international cricket for the past few years. His attitude was totally different. The way he batted, nobody could tell that this was a man making his comeback into the team. Each and every shot that he played was fluent and full of positivity. He wasn’t bogged down by any of the bowlers, and was ultimately unfortunate to be dismissed for 42 in the first innings due to a questionable DRS result. When a batsman is way out of the crease, most decisions go in his favour when an lbw appeal is made. But the DRS review has changed things up and that margin of doubt has now been ruled out. The batsman is out if the ball is in line and simply goes on to hit the stumps irrespective of whether the batsman is outside the crease or not. Although he fell short of a well-deserved half-century, nothing could take away the start that he gave India- a solid foundation after seeing off the new ball.

That little innings reminded me of the young Parthiv Patel, who was the youngest wicket-keeper to play Test cricket at the age of just 17 in 2002. Back then, it was his batting that won him a place in the squad as, at the time, there were not many keepers who could bat well. His glove-work was competitive enough for the international level, but gradually became shoddy as he played more Tests. With the emergence of MS Dhoni, he lost his place in the squad. He kept making small comebacks over the years- sometimes in ODIs and sometimes in T20Is. But none of his performances were strong enough to give him a permanent spot in the side.

 

Things started changing in 2015. He plundered 339 runs, emerging as the fourth highest run getter for the Mumbai Indians in their victorious IPL campaign of 2015. Later that year, he also scored his maiden List-A century and led Gujarat to their maiden Vijay Hazare Trophy title. His good run continued as he scored four fifties from nine innings in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament and then a century against India A in Deodhar Trophy. Now he is back in international fold again after his exploits with the bat in the Ranji Trophy 2016, including three fifties and a century in five games.

It appeared to be a cakewalk when England put up a target of only 103 runs for India to chase. The first over was a maiden bowled by James Anderson where he troubled Murali Vijay with his pace and movement. The beginning of the second over by Woakes brought Virender Sehwag to mind as Parthiv Patel started off with a classic cover drive off his very first ball that went straight to the boundary. A dot ball was followed by another beautiful shot down the ground that fetched him three runs. It looked like he had been given the license to have a go at the English bowlers. Although Vijay departed early in the same over, it didn’t bother Parthiv as he went about his own way, bludgeoning the bowling. He brought up his fifty in just 39 balls and took away the slimmest of chances that England had in that match. He finished the match in a stylish manner, playing an elegant lofted cover drive to hit the winning runs.

Maybe scores of 42 and 67* along with four dismissals in the match don’t sound that great on other days. But for a man making a comeback after eight years AND opening the batting in absence of a regular opener after keeping for long periods of time… Nobody could have asked for anything more from him in this match.

He has made a case for cementing his place in the next match as well. There is no doubt that Saha is India’s first choice keeper, and the keeping duties will be handed over to him if he returns in Mumbai. But Patel’s form with the bat has forced the selectors to scratch their heads a bit. His contribution in the match was as important as the likes of Jadeja, Ashwin and Jayant Yadav, and it looks like he is on the brink of beginning a new career in International cricket provided he is given a chance to continue.

It is a clear indication that the ‘Baby-faced teenager’ is back, this time as a matured and responsible player.

 

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Prasenjit, a techie by profession and Sports writer by passion, hails from the 'City of Joy'-Kolkat...

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