Ahead of the 2023 season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) starting in a week's time, the build-up for the Delhi Capitals has been absolutely dominated by the absence of their maverick captain, batter and wicketkeeper in Rishabh Pant.
As Pant continues his long road to recovery from multiple injuries sustained in a horrific car accident on December 30, 2022, head coach Ricky Ponting was as clear as crystal in stating that the left-handed wicketkeeper-batter will be the heart and soul of the team even if he's not with the team for IPL 2023.
"I haven't met him in person yet. But I have spoken to Rishabh quite a few times in the last few months. I am also trying to give him his own time and space as he's in a very, very difficult time right now and is on the long road to recovery for playing, hopefully international cricket again."
We want to try and involve as much of him around the Delhi Capitals. In an ideal world for me, he'd be sitting next to me in the dugout every match. But if that's not possible, we'd like to make him part of the team in ways possible," said Ponting on the sidelines of an event on Friday.
Ponting disclosed that he had plans of having Pant's jersey number on either shirts or playing caps to ensure his presence is felt during the season. "Just to make it clear that he's our leader, heart and soul of Delhi Capitals, even if he's not with us.
It is also about the whole team realising that how much we are thinking of him and how much we would love to have him as part of this group again," the Delhi Capitals coach said.
"Hope we can come up with some really nice ways. For fans also, it's also about them recognising how much he's a part of us and how much we are going to miss him this season," he added.
Delhi are yet to announce a replacement for Pant and Ponting revealed a decision on the same will be taken after trial games on March 25 and 28, before going to Lucknow for their first game of the season, to be held on April 1.
"We have a few options that are still very much open at the moment. We actually have four keepers in our training group over the last few days and are having a real close lookout with the idea of contracting one of those players.
We have one spot left, which is in Rishabh's place. But we are really excited by the talent seen in them," he said. The 48-year old Australian remarked that Sarfaraz Khan, who had kept wickets for Mumbai in last year's Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy campaign, will be linking up with the Capitals on Friday.
"He's been up at the NCA for the last few weeks recovering from that fractured finger. He'll hopefully join us today. We've got our first practice game tomorrow, which hopefully he will arrive today and be able to be part of that game tomorrow," said Ponting.
Coming back to Pant, Ponting further mentioned that the 25-year-old will be an irreplaceable figure as far his batting exploits are concerned. But at the same time, he expressed confidence in other players stepping up to shape the middle-order for Delhi in IPL 2023.
"It's a huge loss; it doesn't matter who we bring in that role, you will still miss Rishabh. I am not going to joke or gloss over that fact. He's one of the best players in all three formats of the game.
He was ranked in top five Test batters and apart from being a leader, he's the number four batter in that middle-order and finishes off games too," the coach said. "Replacing him is going to be very much impossible.
What we have been trying to do, since the time I have been in DC, is make sure we have the best young talent available, keep them in set-up and make them better in a couple of years.
We have got Sarfaraz, Yash Dhull, who had terrific domestic seasons and can slot in the middle-order. Lalit Yadav played some games last year; Aman Khan has been impressive. He came in after we traded Shardul to KKR, and he's been super impressive in the last couple of days at the training.
When you talk about losing power in the middle-order, if you add Aman Khan with Rovman Powell, and Axar Patel's batting improving in the last 12 months, we will find a way to cover for Rishabh.
You are not going to get the same quality player there; but we think we can have a good middle order as any team in the tournament," he added.