A home Test series is on the line, against the world Test champions, heading into the last match for the first time in nearly five years. There is some pandemic-forced uncertainty surrounding a big tour coming up later in the month. But who will sit out for Virat Kohli in the Mumbai Test has been the burning question for days now. It is being argued by some that one of the two senior batsmen in the middle order should make way for the returning captain.
It is learnt that one of Ajinkya Rahane, who captained the side in Kohli’s absence in Kanpur, and Cheteshwar Pujara is likely to sit out at the Wankhede Stadium. Both have been short of runs of late. But that doesn’t mean that it will be curtains for the career of the player who misses out the series decider starting on Friday.
India are set to leave for a full tour of South Africa later this month, and the think tank is expected to include the two underperforming veterans for the tough assignment. The selectors, captain and head coach will be reluctant to test newcomers like Shreyas Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav in those alien conditions.
But even if they are on the plan to the Rainbow Nation, it could be the last chance saloon for Rahane and Pujara. They would need to redeem themselves to prolong their careers, in what could be termed as a perform-or-perish proposition.
For many, if one is not good enough to make the XI for a home Test, one cannot possibly be taken a week or two later to South Africa, of all places. But the two seniors are likely to be thrown a lifeline.
A quick relook at why the clamour around their places has only grown louder: Pujara averages 20.37 and 30.42 in 2020 and 2021, Rahane has managed 19.57 runs per innings in 12 Tests this year. Both veterans couldn’t make strong cases in the Kanpur Test for being afforded some more leeway; Pujara made 26 and 22, stand-in captain Rahane managed 35 and 4.
There are two ways of looking at this admittedly tricky situation for the new team management comprising skipper Kohli and coach Rahul Dravid, which will make its debut at the Wankhede Stadium today (in his first series as full-time India coach, Dravid will already be working with a third captain in less than three weeks, how’s that for variety!).
The two ways are visible in the initial career paths of the men under scrutiny: Pujara and Rahane. Both debuted against Australia, in 2010 and 2013 respectively. Pujara then got two torrid Tests on the following South Africa tour in Durban and Cape Town after Suresh Raina had failed in the first at Centurion.
Pujara did not get another Test for more than a year and a half as two of India’s greatest batsmen – Dravid and VVS Laxman – wound down their long careers. Following their retirements, and starting with the Hyderabad Test against New Zealand in August 2012, Pujara played as many as 12 successive Tests in home conditions.
Two double-centuries and three centuries later, no one could say a young Pujara was not ready for the next cycle of tours: South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia, one after the other.
Rahane’s case is the exact opposite. After having spent an eternity on the bench, a horror Test debut in Delhi – he made a nervy 7 and 1 – had left him “shattered”, his long-time coach Pravin Amre once told this correspondent.
Nine months later began what was to turn into a staggering run of 17 successive overseas Tests, with centuries in Australia, England, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and 90s in South Africa and Bangladesh. He was properly thrown into the deep end and circumnavigated the world successfully, even if it meant, in hindsight, that his home game never quite developed. How all those initial highs have translated into a Test average of 39.30 heading into his 80th Test is a lament for another day.
Which of these two divergent approaches will Kohli and Dravid adopt for whoever they think should be groomed to take over – whenever it happens – from Pujara and Rahane? Ideally, one would want to blood new talent at home and give them as much of a run as one can in familiar conditions before pushing them into sterner tests abroad. Which means one wouldn’t push an Iyer to face Kagiso Rabada and Co. at Wanderers and Newlands so soon, while one still has a few battle-hardened veterans who have had multiple jousts at those fiery venues.
It is understood that the Board is also veering towards the same view, and it also ties in with the support the two have been getting from the team management in public recently.
“I don’t get worried, you don’t get worried,” Dravid had said when asked after the Kanpur Test whether Rahane’s poor form was a worry. “Of course, you would like more runs from Ajinkya. I am sure he would like a few more runs. He is a quality player. He has done well for India in the past. He has the experience. Hopefully, it’s just a matter of an innings, a matter of a game where he can turn it around.”
A day before the Mumbai Test, Kohli, without naming any individual, said that the management would continue to back those it has been backing for years now, even if it had to make temporary tweaks for particular combinations.
“We have backed the set of players that have done the job for the Indian team the last five-six years,” Kohli said. “We continue to maintain they are the integral part of the larger scheme of things, of the core group of the Indian Test team. They have always been players we have relied upon on many occasions. And they have done the job.
“Mostly, it has been combination-based whenever we have done changes in the past. It is never a thing that you say that ‘I am absolutely okay or happy about being told that the combination doesn’t allow me to play.’ (But) that is the dynamic of team sport.”