Time is running out for Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane after another failure and this time, in reasonably conducive home conditions against an attack which wasn’t half as threatening as Australia and England. Both Pujara and Rahane squandered decent starts on a day when the willows of debutant Shreyas Iyer and Shubman Gill produced half centuries against New Zealand in the opening Test. And the failure was against an attack which did not have the immensely talented and crafty Trent Boult, whose banana inswing in early morning moisture makes life difficult for batters.
Iyer’s arrival with a bang in Test match scenario and Gill being back among runs, albeit as an opener, would certainly set alarm bells ringing for the captain (Rahane) and vice-captain (Pujara) in this Test match.
The Indian squad for the South Africa series will be announced in some days and even if the seasoned duo board that flight to Johannesburg, captain Virat Kohli, head coach Rahul Dravid and white-ball captain Rohit Sharma, who is an integral part of red ball think-tank will have to take an enormous leap of faith to give them a whole series in the Rainbow Nation.
Before KL Rahul got injured, Gill was being considered as a middle-order enforcer, an option they want to check out in long-term. He played as an opener but Gill’s highest overseas first-class score on foreign soil is 204 batting at No.5 in the West Indies, when he was there with the A team. He is a youngster and would be ready to take on any role that the team wants. And Iyer has also passed his first Test with flying colours.
Yes, the track at Bull Ring, Kingsmead or Newlands won’t be a patch on Green Park but what Dravid and Kohli would have wanted to check out was how he reacts to a situation where there has been a middle-order collapse.
Without a doubt, Iyer has responded well and made a case for himself. So if Gill and Iyer, both of whom have come through the ranks now push the door open, there are only two vulnerable slots at the moment — Pujara and Rahane. And wait? An India A team is playing in South Africa at the moment where Priyank Panchal has scored 96 and Abhimanyu Easwaran, at the time of this report, was batting on 80.
Both are openers but given a choice won’t mind batting at No 3. Rohit, after a stupendous tour of England, and KL Rahul, who is one of the best all format players, automatically select themselves and so does skipper Kohli. Rahane’s average before this game was 19 in 11 Tests in 2021 and if one is fair to him, he did look good in his 33 before he couldn’t apprehend that Kyle Jamieson would pitch one around the fourth stump channel but the ball won’t have enough height to play the square cut.
In case of Pujara, the dismissal was an action replay of what has been happening for last two years now. James Anderson had got him in England this season with a similar delivery during the Test series in August.
A ball that moves in the air and one shapes to play inside the line while it lands and then moves away, forcing the batter to dangle his bat and get a feel of the ball. 99 out of 100 times, there will be an edge and it was no different on Thursday. Only difference, it wasn’t Wellington or Christchurch but Kanpur where the height was below knee roll but the quality was as good as it could have been.
It’s a skill delivery that top class practitioners like Southee and Anderson bowl but of late Pujara hasn’t had an answer. One wishes that the man on whom Pujara modelled his game, Dravid has the solution for him. Worse, on a day when Gill and Iyer made a mockery of the New Zealand spinners, even Rahane in his brief stay, Pujara scored 26 off 88 balls and it wasn’t as if he dropped the anchor.
He wasn’t even able to find gaps when Ajaz Patel and Will Somerville were bowling loose deliveries. Patel and Somerville in fact kept a short mid-wicket and a traditional mid-wicket bowling on the off-middle line. It was the same delivery that Gill and Iyer were able come down the track and lift it in the arc between deep mid-wicket and long-on. Pujara, however, was trying to whip it down the ground towards square leg. He wasn’t getting past the fielders.
Couple of days before the Test match, Pujara spoke about being “fearless” in England which helped him. So it was extremely baffling to see him again get into a shell against an attack with spinners, who wouldn’t be a first XI pick in any of the top Ranji Trophy states. “It’s not about India. Have you seen Pujara dominate ever in a first-class game of late. He played that Ranji Trophy final against Bengal and took 200 plus balls to score 60 odd.
“Who were bowlers? Akash Deep, Mukesh Kumar, Ishan Porel? You want me to believe if Pujara played 100 balls against these bowlers, he can’t dominate the next 100 balls. It’s about mindset and lip-service won’t help,” a former India player told PTI on the day.
In case of Rahane, he said that a tangible contribution need not be 100 but then Rahane knows his numbers well enough. In his last 28 completed Test innings, he has one hundred — the 112 against Australia at Melbourne which came in a winning cause. The only other notable contribution is 61 at Lord’s.
On the eve of the match, Rahane said that “even 30s and 40s which help in winning, matter.”
No question about that statement but then the ‘question’ is who is making that statement? If it’s a lower-order batter, then it doesn’t matter but if it’s a specialist top-order player, it could mean two things.
Either the player has lowered the bar for himself or he is extremely short in confidence or both. Can an Indian team afford two out of form players at numbers 3 and 5 on a tour where they have the best chance to get past the Proteas? The answer will be out shortly but for the once dependable duo, time indeed is of essence.
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