India vs South Africa: After failing yet again, is it time to cut Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane loose?

With Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul navigating challenges with credit in the bank, the failures of Pujara and Rahane are only amplified. One more, and that may be the last we see of them.

India’s batsman Cheteshwar Pujara bats during the first day of the second Test match between South Africa and India at the Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Monday. AP

The last time Cheteshwar Pujara scored a Test hundred, Donald Trump was president of the United States of America. The last time Ajinkya Rahane raised his bat as a centurion the coronavirus was still in its beta phase.

The point is, much has changed in the world since two stalwarts of India’s middle order contributed a score of three figures in whites. And now, after the pair lost their wickets in consecutive balls in Johannesburg for a combined contribution of three, it is worth asking the question: Is it time to cut one, or both, of them loose?

India vs South Africa After failing yet again is it time to cut loose Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane

India’s batsman Cheteshwar Pujara bats during the first day of the second Test match between South Africa and India at the Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Monday. AP

Sunil Gavaskar, speaking after the day’s play, suggested that they have one innings each to save their spot in the side. Other talented players are lurking in the wings. Most notably Shreyas Iyer, who scored a swashbuckling century and a patient half century on debut against New Zealand in November.

But this is not a piece that will cast its gaze too far into the future. Instead, let us walk back through history to ascertain how we got here, and why two of India’s most seemingly assured batters are clinging to the rock amid the maelstrom.

Not long ago Pujara was the envy of world cricket. No other team had a like-for-like substitute. In a modern age obsessed with run-rates and reverse scoops, Pujara was a throwback. He was like a pair of well-worn jeans, an old leather wallet, a sepia-toned photograph on the mantelpiece. His presence exuded a sense of calm and safety. His stoicism extended beyond his broad bat compact approach. He became the embodiment of a virtue. Test cricket, aka real cricket, resided in his quiet disposition.

More than that, he scored runs. There are many ways to get them. The only thing that matters is that you do. And since that 159 against the Kiwis in Hyderabad in 2012, he got plenty. There were double tons against England and Australia at home and the 153 in the epic at the Wanderers in 2013. After 94 matches he still averages 44 with 18 hundreds to his name but the manner of his recent dismissals will be familiar to those who have watched too many greats stationed at first drop lose their sense of immovability.

It happened to Hashim Amla and Ricky Ponting before him. No doubt you can conjure up a list of illustrious names to add weight to the argument. Against Duanne Olivier on Monday it was extra pace and a bit of spongy bounce, but really it was a dangling bat away from the body.

This has become a recurring trait of late. The half-jab. Neither a defensive wall or a run-chasing push. Something neither here nor there embellished with an uncertain shift forward. He might have considered himself unlucky with both dismissals in Centurion —  caught at short leg off his pad in the first innings and then down the leg side by the ‘keeper to a wayward half-volley in the second — but he’ll know these were indicative of a creeping technical flaw. Besides, these are the sorts of things that happen to a batter when stuck in a hole.

Pujara has dug himself in this one. It’s easy to sit here behind a keyboard and criticise the seventh most prolific run scorer of the last ten years, but a lack of obvious intent to add more to his tally is acting like a ballast around his ankles and wrists. His hands move apologetically towards the ball. His feet appear trapped in tar. Even half-volleys are treated with undue respect as dot balls strangle like weeds in the rose garden.

He is almost 34-years-old. Time slows even the swiftest among us. But unless he demonstrates a willingness to dominate, to exert his presence either on attack or defence, his time is surely up.

Rahane has a similar problem outside his off stump and is equally plagued by the curse of the half-prod. Sure, he had to play at this one, and Olivier has a tremendous record at the Wanderers and deserves some praise, but those granite hands stabbing awkwardly meant any contact near the edge of his blade would likely have carried towards the cordon.

His two starts — worth 48 and 20 — in Centurion were ended before their time courtesy of loose strokes (another recurring motif in this narrative). Perhaps he had these swirling in the back of his mind as he strode out to the middle of the Bull Ring. Like Pujara, uncertainty hangs over Rahane like a spectre, chiding him into false strokes and hindering his once trademark fluency.

The 112 in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne last year feels a long time ago. He’s averaged 19.95 from 14 matches since with a top score of 67. He’s only played five of those games at home, and spent the rest in difficult conditions in Australia, England and now South Africa. It hasn’t exactly been easy going but the numbers are damning and unforgiving.

This piece of context is important to consider. Flat tracks and pedestrian attacks have been in short supply for both Rahane and Pujara to swell their accounts. But with Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul navigating these challenges with credit in the bank, the failures of the two battlers in question are only amplified. One more, and that may be the last we see of them.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance journalist from Johannesburg now living and working in London, though the Wanderers will always be his spiritual home. He has contributed for a number of publications around the world including Cricinfo, Cricbuzz, the Guardian, the Telegraph and SuperSport. You can follow him on Twitter @danielgallan.

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