The elephant in the room has finally been acknowledged and addressed. Having steadfastly chosen to overlook a litany of failures, the decision-makers in Indian cricket eventually chose to crack the whip last weekend, omitting a quartet of high-profile Test specialists in the clearest indication yet that the process of divorce from the glorious but recently misfiring past is truly underway.
Wriddhiman Saha, the veteran wicketkeeper-batsman, has been in the news for the last couple of days, more for his revelations of text messages from a journalist that can be construed as threatening and intimidating than his omission for the home Tests against Sri Lanka. But it’s the axing of the middle-order duo of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane that has more significant ramifications. Like Ishant Sharma, the seasoned paceman, Saha has long ceased to be a first-choice Test selection. While Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur and Umesh Yadav have pushed Ishant to the periphery, Saha has long ceded ground to the enterprising, energetic Rishabh Pant as the preferred stumper.
It’s unlikely that either will figure in Test discussions for a while to come. Saha is 37, his best behind him. In the event of Pant’s unavailability, the selectors will look ahead rather than backwards. The inclusion of KS Bharat as the second keeper for the Sri Lanka Tests isn’t so much a reflection on Saha’s credentials behind the stumps as the pressing need to plan for the future.
Ishant made his Test debut as far back as June 2007, which makes it hard to immediately relate to the fact that he is still only 33. However, the man with 105 Test appearances is no longer indispensable or even necessary in an emergency, given the depth of India’s pace resources. It makes little sense for Ishant to travel with the side when it will take a long list of injuries to his fellow pacers for him to get a look-in. Ishant’s omission is as much about foresight and inevitability as Saha’s. There hasn’t been so much as a murmur questioning the logic behind their exclusion, suggesting that for once, the selectors haven’t been the targets of misplaced ire and wrath.
That the Indian cricketing fraternity has received the news of Pujara and Rahane being dropped with like equanimity and little outrage speaks to how dire the need was to thank the stalwarts for their services and move on. Pujara is 34, a year older than Rahane, in sheer batting terms, they are no more than mid-lifers, but it will take a miracle for them to convince those that matter that their waning form of the last two years was nothing more than a passing phase.
Pujara has 95 Test appearances since his debut against Australia in October 2010. Rahane, who broke into the Test XI two and a half years later, has 82 caps. One or both have featured in every Test since the home series against New Zealand in September 2012. When Rohit Sharma unveils the side on March 4, the opening day of the first Test against Sri Lanka in Mohali, it will mark the first time in nine-and-a-half years that India will be taking the field without one or both of the right-handers.
There is sympathy but no great support for the duo. For all their yeomen services at their prime, both have fallen on terrible times. The hundreds have dried up, tall scores are conspicuous by their absence and decisive contributions in crises have been sporadic, no more than the dying flicker of the embers before the descent of darkness. Neither can complain of not being given enough opportunities, oftentimes to a fault. Averaging in the 20s since the start of 2020, they could no longer be persisted with, especially given that a string of glittering talent is chomping at the bit, waiting for their time in the sun.
South Africa in December-January was the last throw of the dice as India eyed their first series victory in that country. In admittedly difficult batting conditions, Pujara and Rahane didn’t lead the way in a manner commensurate with their experience and pedigree. The occasional half-century wasn’t going to be a crutch to lean on anymore, not with Shreyas Iyer, Hanuma Vihari, Shubman Gill and the rest patiently, sometimes unfairly, being forced to bide time. Since celebrating his Test debut with a century and a half-ton, Iyer has figured in just one of four subsequent Tests. Vihari has become somewhat of an overseas specialist, thrust into the cauldron in demanding conditions with just one of his 13 Tests coming at home.
Neither has done anything wrong to deserve this predicament. To their credit, they haven’t fretted and fumed, no matter how hard done by they must have felt. It’s their time to shine now, and they will hope they will be given as many opportunities to establish themselves as the two men who kept them out for so long. Their cause won’t be helped by how few Tests India play this year – just five more – but if head coach Rahul Dravid and Rohit’s track record is anything to go by, they can realistically be confident of avoiding the short shrift.
As for Pujara and Rahane, it’s back to the domestic grind. They will need a mountain of runs if they aspire to break the doors down in their comeback bid, and even that may not be enough. They have begun the quest in right earnest; Rahane made a century and Pujara responded with 91 in the Ranji Trophy face-off between Mumbai and Saurashtra last week, but they must sustain their hunger and ambition for long periods if they entertain visions of turning out in India whites again.
The Rohit-Dravid duo is now firmly committed to traversing the road to transition. Like-for-like replacements might be on offer, but there is no substitute for experience. The management duo will embrace patience and empathy while demanding returns for consistency in selection in their bid to maintain India’s exalted position in the longest format.