"He needs to be left alone"
India's captain Virat Kohli has joined white-ball vice-captain Rohit Sharma in backing wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant, who has come under intense scrutiny over the last few months, both in front of and behind the stumps.
On the eve of the T20I series opener against West Indies in Hyderabad, Kohli urged fans not to chant MS Dhoni's name in the stands and ramp up the pressure on Pant. Dhoni, Pant's predecessor behind the stumps in the white-ball teams, hasn't played for India since the ODI World Cup in July, but he hasn't announced his retirement yet and could still have an outside chance of playing next year's T20 World Cup in Australia.
In the ODI series decider against Australia earlier this year at the Feroz Shah Kotla, Pant's home ground, spectators had chanted "Dhoni! Dhoni! Dhoni!" after a failed review from Pant.
Reportedly, the crowd in Rajkot also chanted Dhoni's name after Pant fluffed a chance to stump Bangladesh's Liton Das, having gathered the ball marginally in front of the stumps. As a result, the delivery was deemed a no-ball.
"We certainly believe in Rishabh's ability," Kohli said. "When you say it's the player's responsibility to work hard, perform and do all those things, I agree. But I think it's the collective responsibility of everyone around as well to give that player some space to do so as well. If he misses a chance or something, people can't shout 'MS!' in the stadium. It's not respectful, if I have to put it that way.
"No player would like that to happen. If you're playing in your own country, you should get support rather than always thinking what mistake is this guy going to make. No one wants to be in that position."
After the Rajkot T20I against Bangladesh, Rohit, who led the team in Kohli's absence, threw his weight behind Pant, saying he must be "allowed to do what he wants to do on the field". Kohli echoed Rohit's comments and believed that Pant could translate his success as an attacking force in the IPL to international cricket if he's given the space to do so.
"As Rohit rightly pointed out as well, he needs to be left alone. We know he's a match-winner and once he comes good you will see a different version of him - which you've seen in the IPL already because he's free, he's relaxed there," Kohli said. "He feels that there's a lot more respect when it comes to his ability and what he can achieve for the team. I think he needs to feel that a bit more around him.
"He can't be isolated to an extent that he gets nervous on the field. If you want him to do well and win matches for the team, all of us collectively need to make him feel like he belongs, and we're here to do things for him rather than against him."
When asked if India might consider bumping Pant to the top of the order, in the absence of the injured Shikhar Dhawan, Kohli reckoned that the top four pick themselves, with KL Rahul slated to open with Rohit.
"Not really, in the Indian team if you look at the top three or four batsmen right now, [they have set positions]," he said. "I mentioned this about [Wriddhiman] Saha as well when I was asked in Kolkata 'how do you see him playing shorter formats and so on'. And I said, in IPL you have eight teams. And you have a lot more players who can play in lot more positions. You have to figure out who are the best guys to do the job at a particular position."