The BCCI selection committee took a bold call on Thursday by overlooking Test stalwarts Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane for the upcoming Test series in South Africa, a battle that remains a final frontier for the Indian team as they are yet to win a Test series in the Rainbow nation.
A combined tally of 188 Tests and 12,272 runs is very hard to ignore, but with both 35, and enduring a dry spell of runs, the selectors deemed it the best time to pass on the baton to the younger players. Does that mean that the era of Pujara and Rahane, one that was defined by classical textbook shots, is over? Or could the selectors give one final chance to the ageing warriors, before taking a call on their future? The selectors perhaps answered that last evening.
Pujara has been blowing hot and cold with the willow for quite some time, and while he managed to break his two-year century drought in Bangladesh at the end of 2022, big scores continued to elude him thereafter. Since the unbeaten 102 in Chittagong, all he managed was 211 runs in the next 10 outings, with a lone score beyond 50. Back home, he failed to impress in the series against Australia, and subsequently scores of 14 and 27 at the World Test Championship final in Oval proved to be the final nail. Discarded for the West Indies tour, Pujara rediscovered his groove during his stint with Sussex in English county cricket, hoping to earn a recall for the South Africa tour. But his numbers in the Irani Cup and Vijay Hazare Trophy weren’t enough to impress the Ajit Agarkar-led selection committee.
Rahane, meanwhile, used the domestic season to fine-tune his skills, and slammed 634 runs at an average of 57, after being overlooked for the Test series against Bangladesh and Australia. Picked for the WTC final, Rahane knew it was now or never for him, and came up with a substantial 89, to earn the favour of the selectors for the Caribbean trip. A tally of 11 from two innings on the flat wickets of the West Indies, however, meant that his days in international cricket are numbered.
Rahane’s entry into the WTC final was due to the absence of his Mumbai teammate Shreyas Iyer, who was nursing an injury, and with the return of Iyer back into the Test fold after displaying brilliant form with the bat in the ODI World Cup, also meant it was the end of the road for one of the mainstays of Indian Test side over the past decade.
For India, the top five spots are already sealed with KL Rahul, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Iyer almost cementing it. There’s stiff competition for the opener’s role with the talented young pair of Yashasvi Jaiswal and Ruturaj Gaikwad also being selected for the South Africa tour. Ishan Kishan is almost a like-for-like replacement for Rishabh Pant, which also means KS Bharat’s role in the national team is all but over. KL Rahul also provides the back-up keeper’s option although it will make his job doubly difficult to keep for an innings and return to open the innings with the bat.
With the inclusion of the fresh legs, the selectors have struck the right balance between youth and experience in the side, and only time will tell whether their decision to overlook the pair of Rahane and Pujara will help them conquer the final frontiers – South Africa, and the WTC final.