In search of a new beginning, India’s selectors have discarded the flailing old-guard of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane from the tour of South Africa. Both are 35, both have been enduring a dry spell of runs, and the selectors deemed it was the ripest time to reward young batsmen knocking on their doors. Experience, of a combined tally of 188 Tests and 12,272 runs, would have been the sole factor the selectors would have weighed in, but the promise of youth surpassed it.
There was a sense of inevitability about the decision. Time has been running out for Pujara for some time. He ended a two-year century drought in Bangladesh at the end of 2022, but big scores continued to elude him in subsequent outings. Since the unbeaten 102 in Chittagong, all he mustered was 211 runs in 10 outings, with a lone score beyond 50. The series against Australia was a rare blemish on home soil where he tends to score heavily, while his inability to influence the World Test Championship in Oval meant that he was living on borrowed time. Subsequently, he was discarded from the youth-heavy side to West Indies, but it was widely assumed that he would be back in the scheme for South Africa, in India’s pursuit of a maiden series win. But that was not to be, despite his exploits for Sussex in county cricket. His meagre numbers in Irani Cup and Vijay Hazare Trophy also perhaps put paid to his aspirations. There has been no shortage of grit and heart to rediscover his daddy-hundred scoring prowess, but he has been rendered helpless, perhaps age and diminishing reflexes.
In contrast, Rahane seemed to revive his career, after being overlooked for the Test series against Australia and Bangladesh, with a counterpunching 89 in the WTC final on the back of a strong domestic season (634 runs at 57), but his dismal returns (11 in two innings) on the flat-beds in the Caribbean meant that he had run his international race too. In the WTC final, he had come in as the replacement of Mumbai colleague Shreyas Iyer. Now that the latter has made a resounding return to the fold, it was invariable that he displaced Rahane. The Oval knock, thus, was but a fleeting flicker of one of India’s middle-order pillars in the last decade.
That the new Test cycle is just a series old would have been another factor the selectors and team management would have assessed. With the five-Test series against England (at home) and Australia (away) scheduled this year, there would have been no better point for a break from underperforming veteran warriors and furnishing the youngsters the ideal exposure to blossom as batting mainstays.
India’s Yashasvi Jaiswal celebrates after he scored a century against West Indies. (FILE)
In that sense, there simply was no space for the seasoned duo. The top five is more or less locked, with Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli and Shreyas Iyer almost sealed their slots. There is the supremely talented Yashaswi Jaiswal vying for a spot after his haul of 256 runs in three innings in the West Indies. How and where the team accommodates him would be a fascinating sub-plot in the series. Ishan Kishan too has impressed in his two Tests, and he would be the closest clone to Rishabh Pant in his ability to impact games with the bat in quick time. It’s likely that he would keep the wickets as it would be too taxing for Rahul to both open and wicket-keep for an entire Test match.
The lone surprise could be Ruturaj Gaikwad, who too was part of the West Indies tour, though he did not make his Test debut. He averages an impressive but not staggering 42 in first-class cricket, was just the sixth highest run-getter for his domestic side, Maharashtra, and often opens for his side. India have at least four options for No 1 and 2 (Rohit, Rahul, Gill and Jaiswal). But he is comfortable in dealing quicks, has a strong back-foot game, which could be a valuable asset on fast and bouncy tracks in South Africa, possesses a robust technique, and is a fluent stroke-maker, who could bat anywhere in the order. Besides, he has been in imperious form in recent times, especially the shorter formats. In the latest T20, against Australia in Guwahati, he stroked 128 runs in 57 balls, most of his runs accrued in classical style.
In the past Rohit has praised him. “Ruturaj has got all the potential to be successful in Test cricket as well, he has shown his ability in T20 and I am pretty sure he is looking forward to scoring runs for Team India,” he said during the West Indies series. Recently, former cricketer Ambati Rayudu too has waxed eloquent on him. “His greatness is his talent. His timing on the ball, his shots, his fitness, his temperament. He has everything to become a world-class cricketer across formats. He is very, very calm. And he knows what he’s doing. He has a silent aggression in him. I think it’ll be a great asset for India,” he would say in a TRS podcast.
Suddenly, India have struck a mouth-watering balance between the old and youth, the youthful vigour of Gill, Kishan, Jaiswal, Iyer and Gaikwad and the worldly wisdom of old hands Rohit, Kohli and Rahul. And this perhaps would be the recipe for conquering two elusive frontiers, South Africa and WTC final. And just like everything else in life, Rahane and Pujara, two glorious servants of Indian cricket, have to move on.