Pujara, Rahane, Ishant, Saha will be hurting but selections are not made from individual’s point of view


News Analysis

Careers in competitive sport rarely end in a perfect manner. If it is indeed the end, it is just a fact of life

It hurts. It is supposed to hurt. If it doesn’t, there is probably something wrong. It is not just Wriddhiman Saha who is hurting. Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ishant Sharma will be hurting in their own different ways. Cricket is all they have known as far back as they can remember. Test cricket is the only format they play.

And it hits home only when it happens. To us on the outside, it might seem obvious and justified selection calls, but when you are fighting day in day out, trying to stay fit, trying to work on your game, trying to find a way, nothing prepares you for such an exclusion.

Saha is one of the most unfortunate cricketers of his time. His career has coincided with two extraordinary wicketkeepers’. MS Dhoni kept him out during the first half of his career, and now he has been fighting the only Indian wicketkeeper to have scored centuries in Australia, England and South Africa. In between, injuries robbed him of Tests, which means his career will end, in all likelihood, at 40 Tests.

Even today, even at 37, Saha can walk into some other Test sides, but not India. Not anymore. And you can’t fault the selectors’ logic. It makes little sense to have a 37-year-old as your back-up keeper when Pant is now the incumbent across conditions. It is an opportunity to groom someone younger. It will remain a tribute to Saha that he could keep a batter of Pant’s ability out on turning tracks on the sheer weight of his glovework.

It is staggering to think Ishant is only 33. That body might not feel 33, though. He started out in 2007-08 and has been through horror tours of Australia and England before becoming one of the most improved bowlers in the world. He has sent down 19,160 deliveries in Test cricket, only a third of them as part of a potent, relentless attack.

A lot of words have been written and spoken on how he has improved his lengths, but the biggest change has been that now nobody releases the pressure he creates. For a change, he has pressure to feed off. How he must be wanting to continue enjoying this, having often been the lone shining light in earlier attacks.

Selections, though, are made from the point of view of the team and not the individual. Mohammed Siraj is younger, fitter and quicker. In a fully fit Indian squad, in conditions meriting more than two quicks, Siraj, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami are the top three. If a fourth quick plays, he will have to be a better batter.

Just like Saha, it is perhaps better that a younger fast bowler stays with that group so that he is ready by the time Shami’s body starts to show the signs of wear Ishant’s is showing.

There’s no bigger tribute to Ishant than his edging out Siraj in the XI for the World Test Championship final. The team respected, trusted and valued the work he had done, and brought him back in as soon as he got fit.

Careers in competitive sport hardly ever end in a perfect manner. And who is to say this is the end? If it is indeed the end, it is just a fact of life – stellar careers to be celebrated, new ones to be looked forward to

Yet it might be argued that neither Ishant nor Saha enjoyed as much faith as Pujara and Rahane. Since the start of 2020, Pujara and Rahane have played 20 and 19 Tests respectively for one century between them; Ishant has played nine, and Saha three.

That, though, is how cricket teams and the sport itself are structured. Bowlers are rotated based on conditions, their bodies need to be looked after much more, but most importantly bowlers are much more in control of their fate than batters. Bowlers initiate play, batters react to it. After a point of time, there is not much batters can do against deep attacks in tough conditions. And this has been an era of tough pitches and exceptional attacks. That is probably why India gave a longer run to Pujara and Rahane than might seem justified.

Pujara, who took defensive batting to its extremes at a time when logic suggests defensive batting shouldn’t succeed against fitter and deeper attacks than ever before, on consistently helpful surfaces. Will there ever be such another? And what about Rahane, who used to thrill his way to one breathtaking knock on each tour before this last cycle?

One cannot complain now that they have been dropped. They have had fair runs. You can perhaps nit-pick that those in charge have made diplomatic decisions. Neither of them is a stranger to being dropped when younger, but now that they were veterans neither of them was left out of an XI despite diminishing returns. Going from dropping neither from the XI to dropping both of them altogether from the squad is way more diplomatic than the uncomfortable decision of leaving one of them out of the XI and facilitating a gradual transition. Just like how, years ago, Dhoni refused to drop either Rahul Dravid or VVS Laxman till the time they were in the squad.

Then again careers in competitive sport hardly ever end in a perfect manner. And who is to say this is the end? They will all be raging against the dying light, and don’t be surprised if there is a successful comeback or two. If it is indeed the end, it is just a fact of life – stellar careers to be celebrated, new ones to be looked forward to. Those who are feeling the hurt of the transition today might just be shepherding the next ones themselves, or endorsing them in the media.

And so Virat Kohli will walk into his 100th Test without two batters he pushed, and later backed, more than anyone else. Without the bowler he kicked out of the bed to tell him he had been selected for India for the first time. There will be a day when Kohli will be transitioned too. Indian cricket will chug along then just as it will in Mohali.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo


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