By Avinash Kr Atish
New Delhi, Dec 1 (IANS): Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwer Pujara -- two senior pros, who once were the backbone of Indian Test side, are going through a lean phase and facing the heat from fans and experts.
In the absence of their key regular players, India had high hopes from Pujara and Rahane but the saga of their failures continued in the Kanpur Test as well. Both batters got the starts but they failed to capitalise and score big in the first Test against New Zealand. But, it's not about this match only, as both experienced campaigners have been struggling for a while now and their poor form has been a cause for concern for the Indian team management.
A lot is expected from Rahane whenever he walks into the middle, but the calm-headed batsman has found it difficult to show consistency, a trait which is expected from a middle-order batsman, and a Test specialist.
There was a time when the Mumbai-born cricketer was India's most trusted batsman during overseas tours and perhaps it was the reason to appoint him as Virat Kohli's deputy in the longest format of the game. However, things have changed drastically for him in the last two years.
Barring his match-winning century against Australia at the MCG in 2020, he doesn't have too many impactful knocks under his belt and there have been calls to drop him from the Test squad.
So, what's troubling India's Test vice-captain? Well, experts and former cricketers have pointed out different reasons for Rahane's continuous failure.
Former India cricketer VVS Laxman feels that the right-hand batsman is not decisive and his footwork is causing problems in his recent outings in Test cricket. "Absolutely, he is not decisive (while deciding whether to play on the front foot or the back foot). If your feet stay rooted to the ground, then you are forced to play from the crease. Just take a look at the way Ajinkya Rahane was dismissed today," said Laxman on Star Sports during the first Test.
"The main problem with Rahane is the initial step, something we also call the 'baby step'. If the baby step falls onto the toe or the heel, then your leg gets stuck. From that position, you cannot move at all. That is why Rahane often plays a full delivery on the back foot," he added.
Meanwhile, former New Zealand skipper Daniel Vettori feels it could be a mental block for Rahane and the veteran should be dropped for the second Test in Mumbai from December 3 so that he could get time to reset things and overcome his lean patch, which has continued for too long.
"He (Rahane) looks like he wants to be aggressive; he doesn't feel tentative while he is batting. But still he is getting out, and ostensibly that starts to weigh on a batsman's mind. I think, being dropped and having the ability to come back can then reset a lot of things for someone, particularly as a batsman," Vettori opined on espncricinfo's Match Day on Sunday.
"As you go into a Test match with pressure on your shoulders, then it can weigh on your mind. So, in a lot of ways if they (selectors) leave him out of the next Test, I don't think it is a death knell for his career. I think it is just a one Test match dropping… because it just resets everything, gives him a chance to go back and do a little bit of work," he added.
Being out of form is not a new thing in cricket as every cricketer who has played at the highest level has gone through it. But, Rahene's case is different. Whenever he walks in to bat, his approach doesn't give a sense of security and it feels like Ajinkya could get out at any time because that self-belief in his ability seems to be missing.
In comparison to Rahane, Cheteshwer Pujara has done well on overseas tours but his performances have also come in patches.
Cheteshwar is considered as a rock in the current Indian Test batting but the past two years have been a little shaky for him. A few cracks have started to emerge in his rock-solid defence and he is getting out in similar fashion repeatedly. The dependable batsman is known for tiring the bowlers out and cashing in with it in the latter part of the innings. However, in the last two years, the Indian Test team has suffered a batting collapse many times and the failure of No. 3 Pujara is also one the primary reasons for that.
The veteran India batsman's poor performance in the World Test Championship (WTC) Final against New Zealand in Southampton had become a debating topic. He was heavily criticised for his 'lack of intent'. However, Pujara reinvented himself in the Test series against England and his fearless approach brought the joy back in his batting.
Ahead of the first Test against the Kiwis in Kanpur, the seasoned pro admitted that it wasn't an alteration in his technique but a fearless approach bringing good results for him.
"Yes, I feel so. When it comes to performing, the mindset was a little different but when it comes to technique I don't think there was a major change in technique. It was just the approach and I was a little fearless which helps," said Pujara.
"You don't need to put too much pressure on yourself and just try and go there and enjoy the game rather than worrying too much about what's going around. That was the mindset during the England series. So far, preparation has been good and experiences of playing in Indian conditions will help in the next couple of Tests," he added.
The good performances in England extended the rope of opportunities for the senior batter. But, Pujara is still not at his absolute best as he hasn't scored a Test hundred since January, 2019.
What next for Rahane and Pujara?
Though experience matters, sometimes it can also become an excess baggage. After every failure from Rahane and Pujara, the chorus grows to drop them and pump in more young blood in the Indian Test team.
The constant call to drop Rahane and Ishant also gets strong backing from fans and experts, because India have very good replacements ready. The likes of Shreyas Iyer, Hanuma Vihari, Surya Kumar Yadav, Shubhman Gill and others are ready to fill the big shoes if the Indian team management decides to move on from Rahane and Pujara.
However, even if they get dropped from the team, age is still in Rahane and Pujara's favour. Knowing their love for Test cricket, the duo won't give up that easily and in all likelihood will go through the grind of domestic cricket to prove their mettle and make a comeback.
And with so much cricket being played, anybody with good form, irrespective of their age could get an opportunity at any point of time.