India Tour of South Africa: One Last Lifeline for Pujara, Rahane and Ishant?

The reputation some of the struggling India Test stars go through might just help them gain one last lifeline before the ax falls.

We got used to it - weirdos who run through a hapless train of unsuspecting batter to Battern had their fun and ultimately culminated in massive margins of victory. That India put on such a solid show despite the lack of several first-choice players was testament to their banking strength, but the continued underperformance of veteran trio Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Ishant Sharma also means we may have seen it before the last time the trio entered the field together.

While the team deserves to bask in the glory of beating world champions New Zealand and enjoy the rare break before returning to grind, Indian voters will be busy brainstorming as they determine the future course of Indian cricket. With the next generation of players putting their skills to the test and paired with the underperforming stars, the time seems to be near for the baton to hand over.

For almost a decade, the Indian middle class has been manned by the courageous duo Pujara and Rahane. Together they have done 11,384 runs with 30 centuries while taking together 171 tests. Their presence was reassuring, especially in overseas conditions, where the top contract kept giving in early, which meant they had to step up more often than not to save the team.

However, over the past year, their performance has seen quite a decline. Pujara has run 42 innings without scoring a century and Rahane's last hundred came in December 2020, and he averaged 24.39 in his last 16 Tests.

Shreyas Iyer has made a remarkable entry into Test cricket - one hundred and fifty in the first two innings while batting in the middle order. Mayank Agarwal also returned with a bucket full of runs and scored many of them in a tricky place in Mumbai. Shubman Gill has proven that he belongs to the top level and Indian team management appears to be keen to put him in the middle tier once Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul return to the test team and regain their positions as opening designates

Ishant has long since established himself as a workhorse in test cricket among bowlers. But the failure to take wickets regularly and the appearance of Mohammed Siraj mean the veteran's days as an Indian player are numbered as well.

So will the voters drop the ax on the trio or give them one last lifeline for the South Africa tour? Given the plethora of options India has at its disposal, this could potentially be the case should a jumbo squad travel to the African nation, as it did in times of Covid. However, it still won't guarantee them a place in the team, which is now a close battle for almost every place.

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Rohit, Bumrah, Pant, Shami and Rahul (if they are fit) enter the eleven squares, which means they must be evacuated. Gill, Agarwal or Iyer are unlikely to be banked given their current form. So the logical step seems to be to punish the underperformers.

In his media talk on Monday, Kohli revealed that a joint decision about the composition of the squad must be made for the tough operation in South Africa. However, he supported the fighting Rahane. The test victory in Mumbai was achieved without Rahane or Ishant, both of whom were excluded due to various injuries. However, Pujara delivered a solid blow in the first innings and might just manage to hold onto his place. But will Rahane and Ishant get another chance or a respectable exit? We will see.

For the New Zealand tests, the BCCI spared regular players Rohit, Jasprit Bumrah, Rishabh Pant and Mohammed Shami from both games. Captain Virat Kohli returned for the second test while Rahul missed after sustaining an injury.