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India Tour of South Africa: A Last Lifeline For Pujara, Rahane And Ishant?

(From left) Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ishant Sharma (Agencies)

(From left) Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ishant Sharma (Agencies)

The reputation some of the struggling India Test stars are going through may just about help them gain one last lifeline before the axe falls.

India finished the New Zealand Test series with a thumping win – a typical performance in home conditions that we have grown used to seeing - spinners running through a hapless train of clueless batters after batters had their fun,  eventually culminating into massive victory margins. That India managed such a solid show despite the absence of several first-choice players was a proof of their bench strength but the continual under-performance from the veteran trio of Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Ishant Sharma also means that we may have already seen the last time the trio has taken the field together.

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While the team deserves to bask in the glory of the series win over world champion New Zealand and enjoy the rare break before returning to the grind, the Indian selectors will busy brainstorming as they chart the future course of Indian cricket. With the next generation of players proving their credentials and coupled with the underperforming stars, the time for the passing of baton seems nigh.

For almost a decade, the Indian middle order has been manned by the gritty duo of Pujara and Rahane. Together, they have scored 11,384 runs with 30 centuries while clocking a combined 171 Tests. Their presence has been reassuring, especially in overseas conditions when time and again, the top order given way early meaning they had to step up more often than not to bail the team out.

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However, over the past year or so, their performance has seen quite a major dip. Pujara has gone 42 innings without scoring a century and Rahane’s last hundred came in December 2020, and he’s averaging 24.39 in his last 16 Tests.

Shreyas Iyer has made a remarkable entry to Test cricket – a hundred and fifty in first two innings while batting in the middle order. Mayank Agarwal has returned with bucketful of runs as well, scoring plenty of them on a tricky Mumbai pitch. Shubman Gill has shown he belongs to the top level and Indian team management seems keen on using him in the middle order once Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul return to the Test squad and take back their positions as designated openers

Among the bowlers, Ishant has long established himself as a workhorse in Test cricket. But the failure to take wickets regularly and the emergence of Mohammed Siraj means the veteran’s days as India player are also numbered.

So, will the selectors drop the axe on the trio or give them one final lifeline for the South Africa tour? Considering the wealth of options India have at their disposal, should a jumbo squad travel to the African nation as has been the case in covid times, this might just turn out to be the case. However, it still won’t guarantee them a place in the playing XI for which there’s a close battle for nearly every spot now.

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For the New Zealand Tests, the BCCI rested regulars Rohit, Jasprit Bumrah, Rishabh Pant and Mohammed Shami from both the games. Captain Virat Kohli returned for the second Test while Rahul missed out after picking up an injury.

Rohit, Bumrah, Pant, Shami and Rahul (if fit) walk into the eleven meaning spots will have to be vacated. It is unlikely that Gill, Agarwal or Iyer will be pushed to the bench considering their current forms. So, the logical step seems to be to punish the underperformers.

During his media interaction on Monday, Kohli revealed that a collective decision needs to be made regarding the squad composition for the tough South Africa assignment. He though backed the struggling Rahane.

The Test win in Mumbai was achieved without Rahane or Ishant, both of which were ruled out due to various injuries. Pujara though produced a solid knock in the first innings and may just manage to hold onto his spot.

But will Rahane and Ishant be given another opportunity or be given a respectable exit. Time will tell.

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first published:December 07, 2021, 13:03 IST