Every story needs its villain. So, when India faltered at the 'Final Frontier' in South Africa, again, the search for this story's villain, or rather villains, ended with Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane.
The world No 1 Test side, India, were heavy favourites to win their first Test series in the Rainbow Nation when the contest began, but they were left licking their wounds after Proteas scripted a comeback 2-1 win.
The South Africa batting line-up, depleted by the departures of AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis in recent years and Quinton de Kock's retirement midway through the series, laid the foundation for the win by outclassing India's heavyweight names.
One of the most experienced batters going around in world cricket, Pujara could only score 124 runs in three matches at a dismal average of 20.67, while Rahane managed just 136 at 22.67 in the same number of games. Add to that Virat Kohli's recent slump and India basically played the series with a nonexistent middle-order.
Hence, it's no surprise that Rahane and Pujara are being branded as the root cause for India's failure in the Test series. But there are others as well who must take the blame for the whole mess.
Selectors in spotlight
Let's start with the selectors. When Virat Kohli stepped down as T20 captain of India, selectors responded by removing him from the ODI captaincy as well. One captain for white-ball formats was their rationale, yet it was also a very bold decision. The Chetan Sharma-led panel, however, didn't show the same alacrity when it came to fixing the middle-order muddle for the Test team.
Rahane and Pujara went to South Africa with their last 10 innings reading like 15, 5, 1, 61, 18, 10, 14, 0, 35, 4 and 9, 45, 1, 91, 4, 61, 26, 22, 0, 47 respectively. Pujara averaged 30.6 after those 10 innings, while Rahane only 16.32.
Not only this, Rahane has scored a mere 547 runs in 15 matches since the start of 2021 at a disappointing average of 18.91. Pujara has had a slightly better time in the same period, scoring 810 runs in 16 matches at 27.54. Still, not the numbers fit for a No 3.
Regardless, the selectors kept pulling away from taking a decisive decision. They kept putting the ball in Kohli's court, kept extending the rope instead of being bold on this front.
Another point to consider is how they have handled Hanuma Vihari so far. Being the incumbent, Vihari should have been the player to take Kohli's place against New Zealand in the Kanpur Test when the former captain gave the match a miss, but instead, it was Shreyas Iyer who featured in the XI as Vihari was not picked in the squad. He was also not named in the India 'A' squad for the South Africa tour which was announced at the same time and was later added to it after a controversy broke out.
The selectors' work so far to solve the middle-order issues has been unsatisfying, to put it mildly.
Former India cricketer Vikram Rathour has been with the team for over two years now. The batting line-up in white-ball formats has largely been a work-in-progress during his tenure so far, but in Tests, he has had a more stable group to work with.
Injuries have led to constant changes to the opening partnership but Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul in the recent past have impressed with their grit and panache. On the other hand, the middle-order — No 3 to No 5 — has been a big disappointment.
Along with Rahane and Puajra, Kohli has also struggled to match his usual standards in the recent past, scoring just 536 runs in 11 matches of 2021 at 28.21.
All these batters have not only struggled to score runs but there's a pattern to how they have been getting out. Kohli has time and gain perished chasing the ball outside off stump. For Pujara, the oppositions' plan has been the same for a while. Cramp him for room with short balls and capitalise on the mistakes he makes while defending on the front foot. Wait for an edge to short leg, leg slip or a catch to gully and see Pujara walk back to the hut.
Rahane got caught out behind the wicket in five out of six innings in South Africa. The tentative foot movement combined with the lack of awareness of the off-stump has made him a sitting duck. The only time he didn't nick the ball, he got out trying to play a pull shot. Remember, how he got out to the same shot in the World Test Championship final after making 49!
The fact that the same mistakes keep happening from the three best batters in the team asks for greater scrutiny of Rathour's role.
Kolhi and Dravid
Before the third and decisive Test, Dravid had said that Vihari and Iyer would have to wait for their chances till the seniors are around.
When Kohli, who left Test captaincy a day after the South Africa series loss, was asked about Rahane and Pujara's Test future at the end of Newlands Test, he decided to put the ball in the selector's court.
The selectors are passing the buck to the team management. The leadership group wants the selectors to take the final call. Amid all this, India failed to conquer the 'Final Frontier' as out-of-form batters failed to set up the matches for the bowlers.
Surely, the time has come to give chances to the youngsters. The time has come to try out others in place of Rahane and Pujara, but it's also important we realise what led to the South Africa debacle. Which was more than just Rahane and Pujara's poor form.
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
Virat Kohli was back among the runs as he smashed a 54-ball 73 against Gujarat Titans on Thursday.
Virat Kohli's forte, his bat, has not essayed the thunderclaps it normally does.
Patchy captaincy, inconsistent coaching and some interference from the management have together led Kolkata Knight Riders down to the present scenario.