Indian Batting coach Vikram Rathour “understands” fully that Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are now India players living on borrowed time. But the former opener on Sunday couldn’t give a definitive answer as to who would sit out in order to accommodate skipper Virat Kohli’s comeback in the next Test against New Zealand. With Shreyas Iyer scoring 105 and 65 on debut for the Indian side, it would be almost criminal to drop the stylish Mumbaikar, and understandably, Rathour had to fend questions on Pujara and Rahane’s form going into the Mumbai Test, starting on December 3. “Of course, you want the top-order to contribute but cricketers (Pujara and Rahane) you mentioned they have played 80 (79 for Rahane) and 90 Tests (91 Test for Pujara).
“Of course, to play that many games, they must have done well for us,” Rathour tried his best to defend the 2021 Test average of below 20 by the stand-in captain (19.57) and 30.42 by his deputy. “We understand that both of them are going through a lean phase but we understand that they have both played very, very important knocks for us in the past for India. We are pretty sure that they are going to come back and play important knocks for us,” Rathour’s statement lacked conviction. But what’s the kind of long rope that one gives a senior player, who has been a past performer? Is it 15 or 20 Tests?
The former Punjab opener, who played six Tests during the 1996-97 season, felt that it can’t be quantified. “I don’t think you can put a number to that. It really depends on the situation the team is in and what the team is required to do,” he sidestepped the question. The next question was even more straightforward: whom do you drop when Kohli takes his slot back in the Mumbai game? “Captain coming back in, that will happen in the next game and we will get to that point when we reach Mumbai. The focus is on this game and there is a day to go and a game to be won.
We will get to that point when we get in Mumbai,” the opener of yesteryears dead-batted the query. Can he, at the least, say with a degree of certainty that Iyer, after his dream debut, won’t be dropped in the next game? There had been an instance when Karun Nair was left to cool his heels just after scoring a triple ton as an injured Rahane was making a comeback. “Once we land in Mumbai, we will take that call, what our playing XI is going to be,” he repeated. It is going to be a tightrope walk for the Indian team management when its best batter comes back in the next game.
Even Pujara and Rahane know very well that one among the two could get the ax at least for the game although they are both expected to be selected for South Africa Tests if the tour goes on. The problem in accommodating Pujara and Rahane is that the two juniors — Shubman Gill and Iyer — who would have been easily disposable after a singular failure have scored runs and done that with a lot of authority on a tacky, if not, unplayable surface. One thing is for sure that Mayank Agarwal (13 and 17) will have to sit out in Mumbai after his twin failures and therein lies the problem.
There are a few options by which one can still slot Pujara and Rahane for the next game. None are convincing but it’s a way to show respect to two quality players, who deserve one more chance. The third option is playing with four bowlers and expecting Iyer to at least give 10 overs of leg-spin along with three other spinners while dropping one of the pacers. And then there is also a fourth option: drop one among Pujara and Rahane straight away, but in Indian cricket, the system of dealing with star players is slightly different compared to England and Australia.