India vs South Africa: With alarm bells ringing, it’s time to ditch the misfiring past and invest in Vihari, Iyer

One of the more abused cliches in competitive sport is ‘living in the present’. It is self-explanatory, referring to staying in the here and now, disregarding what might have happened or what could transpire. It’s about focusing on what must be done immediately, because without that focus, the desired outcome will prove elusive.

It’s almost as if along with their India cap and the ubiquitous sunglasses, India’s cricketers are also gifted with a tome of select phrases for formal interactions; Indian cricket is no exception to churning out the ‘living in the present’ clich?. The time is ripe, however, to walk the talk. Any lingering doubts have been comprehensively erased after the 1-2 debacle in South Africa.

Tempting as it might be to point the finger of blame at India’s pace attack for its inability to stretch South Africa’s chases of 240 and 212 in the last two Tests, it’s hard to look beyond the batting as the primary reason for the 1-2 score line. India topped 300 just once in six completed innings, in the very first innings of the series. What should have been the spur for greater consistency turned out to be a misleading oasis in a dismal desert strewn with the spoils of failure and abject surrender, crying out for India’s selectors to embark on course-correction.

For over a year now, the harsh glare of the unforgiving spotlight has been trained unblinkingly on two of India’s three middle-order stalwarts, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. If Virat Kohli is only on the periphery of that searching examination, it’s because as captain, he brings greater value to the side than the gentlemen either side of him in the batting order. Kohli himself is in the middle of an extended barren run that has seen him go 26 months without an international hundred, but he redeems himself in other ways apart from suggesting more than occasionally that he isn’t far away from turning the corner. The same can’t be said of Pujara and Rahane, who have good reason to wonder if they have played their last Test.

Barring their 111-run partnership in the second innings in Johannesburg, in which both batters scored fifties, the Test series wasn’t a productive one for veterans Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. AFP

It was inevitable that, in the aftermath of the seven-wicket drubbing at Newlands on Friday, Kohli would be confronted with the issue of the two elephants in the room. The skipper reiterated the team’s support for the embattled veteran duo, pointing to their contributions as recently as in the second innings of the previous Test, but adding that it was up to the selectors to take decisions. Kohli wasn’t putting the ball in the court of Chetan Sharma and his band of five wise men so much as stating the obvious, though it is worth pausing to reflect on his reference to the knocks by Pujara and Rahane in Johannesburg.

With India losing both openers for an effective lead of just 17, Pujara and Rahane produced a stirring, counter-attacking third-wicket alliance of 111. It took an inspired Kagiso Rabada to send both packing and stall India’s march to a sizeable advantage, but that was about the best anyone saw of the seasoned middle-order duo all series.

In continuing with the recent template of playing five full-time bowlers, India’s team management has sought to transfer greater responsibility on the shoulders of the five specialist batsmen and Rishabh Pant. For all the talk of lower-order contribution, the latter’s primary role is taking wickets. The runs they accrue down the order are important, yes, but they should not be non-negotiable. Unlike those of the specialist batsmen.

It’s fanciful, mischievous even, to read between Kohli’s lines and we shall not embark on that exercise. Irrespective of what the think-tank might believe, there is a consensus beyond the corridors of the national team set-up that any runs from the blades of Pujara and Rahane are a bit of a bonus. As disrespectful as it might seem to two stalwarts who have been loyal servants of Indian cricket for so long, they have been living on borrowed time for months now.

Rahane finished the series with 136 runs and an average of 22.66, Pujara’s corresponding numbers were 124 and 20.66. That alone should not be reason to condemn them, not when one considers that the first named has 82 Test caps and Pujara is five matches shy of a 100th Test appearance. But the latest frugal returns are an extension of a pattern dating back to 2020.

In 20 Tests in the last 24 months in New Zealand, Australia, England, India and now South Africa, Pujara has scratched out 973 runs at 26.29; in the same period in the same lands, Rahane’s 19 Test appearances have yielded 819 runs at 24.08. Between them, in 73 innings, they have made one century and 11 half-centuries. For every ‘crucial’ contribution, there has been a string of troughs. It is impossible to see how the decision-makers can continue to keep the faith any longer, especially when they aren’t confronted with the TINA factor.

There are numerous viable options, obvious even to a casual follower of Indian cricket. As recently as in November, Shreyas Iyer celebrated his Test call-up with a century and a half-century on debut, yet watched from the sidelines in South Africa as his older colleagues repeatedly fluffed their lines. Hanuma Vihari, who briefly went from the nearly man to the forgotten man, did nothing wrong in the Johannesburg Test in Kohli’s absence, yet his head was the first on the chopping block when the skipper returned for the decider. How long can India overlook the credentials of these driven men? Can they afford to blunt their competitive edge by not using it to the hilt when it is at its sharpest? Can they continue to keep sacrificing the promise of a better tomorrow at the altar of a happy past segueing into a terrible present?

There’s no easy way of saying it. It’s time to thank Pujara and Rahane for their services and let them go. Invest in those whose best is ahead of them, not some distance back in the past. The home series in Sri Lanka next month won’t be the worst place to start the latest episode of perestroika in Indian cricket.

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