Less than a year ago, Rishabh Pant was the most celebrated young performer to come out of the Ranji Trophy. His 872 runs at a strike rate of 107.28 went a long way towards him getting an India cap - against England in a T20I in February - after just 10 first-class matches. Today, he's in the middle of a rough patch and hasn't been considered for national selection since the limited-overs series against West Indies in June, with questions raised over his temperament and shot selection.
In five first-class games so far this season, Pant has managed just one half-century, a counter-attacking 67 for India A against New Zealand A in Vijayawada. In his first Ranji Trophy outing this season, against Uttar Pradesh, he wasted two strong starts. This didn't deter Delhi's selectors from naming him captain after Ishant Sharma's departure to join the Indian Test squad.
Gautam Gambhir had declined captaincy, and Unmukt Chand was left to concentrate on his batting. Under these circumstances, KP Bhaskar, the Delhi coach, saw an opportunity to groom a youngster. At 20, Pant is Delhi's youngest captain in the last 12 years.
"His style is not to block and occupy the crease. He can change the whole outcome of the game in a few overs," Bhaskar told ESPNcricinfo. "But shot selection is something he can work on, especially when playing for India and expectations are high. So then the responsibility automatically comes."
The overriding concern with Pant has been the manner of some of his dismissals. He has vehemently trusted his approach of see-ball-hit-ball. Sometimes, it has been refreshing to see. Other times, it has cost him some big innings.
The latest indiscretion took the form of an expansive cut shot against Karnataka in Alur. The failure to spot an arm ball from offspinner K Gowtham resulted in him losing his stumps, this after he had spent the better part of 90 minutes trying to focus and play himself in. He was nine short of a fifty, his team was 400 runs behind in the first innings.
Bhaskar understands the frustration that could come with managing a player of Pant's ability, but he is willing to remain patient. "He understands his role well. His coach at Sonnet Cricket Club, Mr. Tarak Sinha, I'm sure, is keeping in touch with him and working on his game, because with me it's only during the season," he said. "But I'm sure Sinha would be guiding and advising him. He is quite receptive, but you can only advise. You can't really force him to change the way you want him to play."
Pant gives out an air of insouciance when he bats. He can also occasionally be slapdash with his words, like at the end of the fourth day, when asked about the need to play a little more responsibly, he jovially remarked something to the effect of captaincy or no-captaincy, his approach will remain the same. Yet, the one unmissable trait is his supreme confidence.
His natural aptitude for stroke-making prompted Bhaskar to liken him to Virender Sehwag. The former India batsman, known for compiling monumental innings at an astounding rate, has himself hailed Pant's ability in the past. Pant displayed similar potential when he blasted a triple-century at nearly a run a ball against Maharashtra last season.
"What we saw last year is that he has the staying power of scoring 300. So he can occupy the crease and score the big runs," Bhaskar said. "There's no point asking him to curb his instincts. Players like (Krishnamachari) Srikkanth, Sandeep Patil, Kapil Dev were natural stroke-makers. How can you force or stop them? It doesn't make sense. He's very natural that way."
Bhaskar's assessment is in line with Dravid's observations of not wanting to take away Pant's attacking instincts. The India A coach had stressed on the importance of the experience itself, after Pant's poor series against New Zealand A.
"He may not be showing it, but deep down I'm sure he must be feeling it. Now that he is out of the [India] side, he has realised it and I'm sure he must be working hard on his temperament," Bhaskar said. "His body language is the same as it was last year, but he looks much fitter, and his keeping has definitely improved.
"I have always told him: it's easy to play for India, but your preparations - mental, physical and technical - are what will help cement yourself. That's more important. And age is by his side. His advantage is that he's a keeper along with batsman. (MS) Dhoni has been around for some time, but once Dhoni hangs his boots, I'm sure he will be a prime man to fill his boots."