New Delhi: Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the legend who echoes with Indian cricket, is literally fighting to stay relevant in a sport which has seen a spurt of young talents, capable of replicating what he's been doing for so many years.
Since stepping down as the captain of the limited-overs sides of the national team, the 35-year-old has, to many, has been reduced to a sideshow. That's harsh, but what's even more demonic is the recent 'campaign' orchestrated by some section of cricket fans to drop him from the Rising Pune Supergiant's playing XI in their 2017 Indian Premier League (IPL) campaign.
Even as experts continue to prophesise Dhoni's swansong campaign, which many believed will be at the ICC Champions Trophy this June, Indian cricket is grappling with the fact that no player has emerged as Dhoni's perfect replacement – a successor who can carry on the legacy of a being an abled-finisher, that too with some charisma. Simply put, a future leader material, not necessarily about being a captain though, considering Virat Kohli's presence.
A player of Dhoni's stature and charisma comes once in a lifetime, and it will not be an easy task to find a readymade replacement for such a legend. But, replacements happen all the time. And there will be one for Dhoni too. It's a fact of life.
Indian cricket has seen a host of young wicket-keeper batsmen ready to step up, and don the national colours. But how many of them are indeed worthy for international cricket, let alone Dhoni's future replacement, is still a matter of conjecture.
But for a certain Sam Billings, who is presently in India for his second IPL campaign, reckoned that a certain Rishab Pant is the one to groom as Dhoni's successor. Billings is an outsider, and even too raw to be taken for his words on matters like finding a replacement for Dhoni.
The 25-year-old England wicketkeeper who has made a huge stride in the international arena in the last couple of years does know a thing a two about the role. He, in fact, has played in all of four IPL matches for the Delhi Daredevils this season so far. And he is not even playing as a wicketkeeper.
Billings, talking to Scroll, said that Pant is "without doubt" the best young player he has ever seen, and claimed that his IPL team-mate is "almost Dhoni-esque."
" He [Pant] is phenomenal, both as a batsman and a keeper, just looking at the way he has done in these first few games. He was standing up to the stumps, almost Dhoni-esque," he was quoted as saying.
In the four innings so far, Pant has registered scores of 38 (16) vs Kolkata Knight Riders, 15 (9) vs Kings XI Punjab, 31 (22) vs Rising Pune Supergiant and 57 (36) vs Royal Challengers Bangalore, days after the death of his father.
"There is no doubt in my mind that once MS Dhoni hangs his boots, Pant is the guy (to replace him). Big words I know, but you just see him and it is there," he added about the 19-year-old.
Interestingly, the Delhi-based franchise has as many as three wicketkeeper batsmen in Billings, Pant and Sanju Samson, and all of them has performed creditably well under the watchful eyes of mentor Rahul Dravid and Paddy Upton.
Pant's contribution seemed pale in comparison to the one conjured up by Samson, specially after the one witnessed in Rising Pune Supergiant match, where the 22-year-old from Kerala hit a 63-ball 102.
But what prompted Billings to go for Pant, instead of Samson, is the teenager's ability to take on the challenge, and consistency.
Luckily for India, Pant and Samson are not the only talented wicketkeeper batsmen around. There is Wriddhiman Saha, the first team player, then there are Ishan Kishan, KL Rahul, Naman Ojha, Parthiv Patel, Dinesh Karthik and Robin Uthappa – the last three being the unlucky ones who were overshadowed by Dhoni brilliance.