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Return of Rishabh Pant prompts both relief and the guilty secret of fandom

<span>Rishabh Pant (left) and Yuzvendra Chahal share a joke during their warm-up for the T20 World Cup.</span><span>Photograph: Alex Davidson/ICC/Getty Images</span>
Rishabh Pant (left) and Yuzvendra Chahal share a joke during their warm-up for the T20 World Cup.Photograph: Alex Davidson/ICC/Getty Images

It must have felt hallucinatory for Rishabh Pant. A T20 World Cup match in Nassau County, New York is unusual at the best of times; it becomes even stranger as the scene of a long-awaited competitive return to international cricket, the end of a 17-month absence that could so easily have been permanent. India’s wicketkeeper entered at 22 for one, the target a meagre 97 against Ireland, but the track posing enough danger to force Rohit Sharma off with a blow to the upper arm. So much time away could prompt concern, coerce the hands to grip the bat a little tighter. The feet try to remember how they once moved under the eyes of millions while the mind tries to focus on the only thing that matters: the ball.

Related: T20 World Cup has been truly global but how many tournaments is too many? | Mark Ramprakash

But Pant doesn’t really do nerves. A straight slap for four got him off the mark, and a couple of hits to the body followed before he ended the match with a reverse-swat for six, leaving him unbeaten on 36. He had been in fine touch in late 2022, too, stroking 93 against Bangladesh in Mirpur to end the calendar year with 680 Test runs at 61.81, his strike rate above 90. The numbers matched his ability as the most captivating wicketkeeper-batter of his generation. A first one-day hundred for India in July against England was a handy achievement before a 50-over World Cup at home the following year. To close out a momentous 12 months, Pant drove from Delhi to Roorkee, Uttarakhand, to see his mother. He never made it there.

Driving in the early hours of 30 December 2022, Pant, according to police, “dozed off” before his car hit a central divider, flipped and burst into flames. “I had taken an SUV, but what I was seeing was a sedan,” he went on to joke in an interview with Star Sports. He was rescued, moved from one hospital to another before being airlifted to Mumbai for knee ligament surgery. He would later admit to feeling, in the immediate moments of the crash, that his time was up. There were fears his right leg would be amputated.

Now comes the Spin’s rather shameful confession. Upon hearing the news, there was the first reaction: hoping that Pant was alive and on course for a full recovery. Then there was the guilty one: when is he back? Is he going to miss the four Tests against Australia? Is Wriddhiman Saha still about? It is the affliction of fandom, to easily ignore the pain of the athlete and the monotony of hours in the gym, reducing the bruised and battered body to one line on a Sky Sports News ticker while demanding a swift and successful return to the field. Rest up, get back on and do not dare show any signs of rust. Pant, of course, was just grateful to be alive as he embarked on a lengthy period of rehabilitation.

He documented it on social media, celebrating “NO MORE CRUTCHES Day!” in May last year before posting a video in June of him making it up the stairs twice: the first time in great pain, the second time in much less. Given an 18-month recovery timeline by his doctor, he wanted to make it 12. His return to the game landed somewhere in-between, coming this March for Delhi Capitals in the Indian Premier League, where he finished as his side’s leading run-scorer in the tournament. India could not help but get him straight back in at No 3 for the World Cup, with Pant probably the only option capable of headlining after an opening act of Rohit and Virat Kohli.

An Indian cricketer’s greatest fear is, surely, being forgotten. The options are plentiful, a queue of plug-and-play replacements waiting for their audition, and India did not lose many while Pant was away. The gloves were passed around a few times in the Test side, but they fitted Dhruv Jurel’s hands perfectly earlier this year, the 23-year-old newcomer hitting 90 and an unbeaten 39 in Ranchi to secure a series victory over England. But India also lost two finals last year against Australia, both of them decided by the fearlessness of a see-ball-hit-ball left-hander. While Travis Head won his side the World Test Championship and ODI World Cup, India were not able to showcase their own version.

Pant remains unique in the most populous country in the world. There are others like him in the shorter forms but no one else capable of matching his tempo in whites, no one else reverse-flicking Jimmy Anderson over the slip cordon with the second new ball. India managed without Kohli when beating Australia on their own patch three and a half years ago but they could not have done it without Pant’s audacity in pulling off a final-day chase at the Gabba, where no visiting side had won a Test since 1988.

These are early days in the comeback, with no guarantees that a 26-year-old making his way back from a life-threatening incident will return to the path he was on a couple of years ago: to end up as one of the best the game has ever seen. Then again, such a lofty prediction is another affliction of fandom. For now, the sight of Pant simply swinging the bat around should provide enough joy to us all.

• This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.