Time is running out for Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane after yet another failure and this time in reasonably conducive home conditions against an attack that was not half as threatening as Australia and England. Both Pujara and Rahane wasted decent starts on a day when the arrows of debutant Shreyas Iyer and Shubman Gill produced half a century against New Zealand in the preliminary test. And the failure was against an attack that did not have the immensely talented and cunning Trent Boult, whose banana swing in early morning moisture makes life difficult for batterers.

Iyer’s arrival with a bang in the test match scenario, and Gill is back among the races, though as an opener, would definitely make the alarm bells ring for the captain (Rahane) and the deputy captain (Pujara) in this test match.

The Indian squad for the South Africa series will be announced in a few days, and although the experienced duo board the plane to Johannesburg, captain Virat Kohli, head coach Rahul Dravid and white-ball captain Rohit Sharma, who is an integral part of the red ball think tank will have to take a huge leap of faith to give them an entire series in Rainbow Nation.

Before KL Rahul was injured, Gill was considered a middle-order enforcer, an option they want to check out in the long run. He played as an opener, but Gill’s highest overseas first-class score on foreign soil is 204 strokes at No. 5 in the West Indies when he was there with the A team. He is a young man and would be ready to take on any role that the team wants. And Iyer has also passed his first test with flying colors.

Yes, the track at Bull Ring, Kingsmead or Newlands will not be a patch on Green Park, but what Dravid and Kohli would have wanted to check out was how he reacts to a situation where there has been a collapse in the middle order.

Without a doubt, Iyer has responded well and made a case for himself. So if Gill and Iyer, who have both come through the ranks, now push the door open, there are only two vulnerable slots at the moment – Pujara and Rahane. And wait? An India A team is currently playing in South Africa, with Priyank Panchal scoring 96 and Abhimanyu Easwaran, at the time of this report, hitting 80.

Both are more open, but if they have a choice, they will not mind beating No. 3. Rohit, after a fantastic tour in England, and KL Rahul, who is one of the best players in all formats, automatically selects himself, and so does skipper Kohli. Rahane’s average before this match was 19 in 11 Tests in 2021, and if one is fair to him, he looked good in his 33 before he could not fathom that Kyle Jamieson would hit one around the fourth stump channel, but the ball would not have enough height to play the square cut.

In the case of Pujara, the dismissal was a repetition of what has happened the last two years now. James Anderson had got him in England this season with a similar delivery during the Test series in August.

A ball that moves in the air and one forms to play within the line while landing and then moves away, forcing the batter to dangle his bat and get a feel for the ball. 99 out of 100 times there will be an edge and it was no different on Thursday. Only difference, it was not Wellington or Christchurch, but Kanpur, where the altitude was below the knee roll, but the quality was as good as it could have been.

It is a skill delivery that top-class athletes like Southee and Anderson bowl, but too late Pujara has not received an answer. One wishes that the man on whom Pujara modeled his game, Dravid, has the solution for him. Worse, on a day when Gill and Iyer mocked the New Zealand spinners, even Rahane in his short stay, Pujara scored 26 of 88 balls and it was not as if he threw the anchor.

He was not even able to find holes when Ajaz Patel and Will Somerville played loose. Patel and Somerville actually kept a short mid-wicket and a traditional mid-wicket bowling on the off-middle line. It was the same delivery that Gill and Iyer were able to get off the field and lift it in the arc between deep mid-wicket and long-on. Pujara, however, tried to whip it down to the ground against the square leg. He did not get past the fielders.

A few days before the test match, Pujara talked about being “fearless” in England, which helped him. So it was extremely confusing to see him re-enter a shell against an attack by spinners that would not be a first XI pick in any of the best Ranji Trophy states. “It’s not about India. Have you ever seen Pujara dominate in a first-class match recently. He played the Ranji Trophy final against Bengal and took 200 plus balls to score 60 odd.

“Who were the bowlers? Akash Deep, Mukesh Kumar, Ishan Porel? You want me to believe that if Pujara played 100 balls against these bowlers, then he can not dominate the next 100 balls. It’s about thinking and mouthpiece will not help, “a former Indian player told PTI on the day.

In the case of Rahane, he said that a tangible contribution does not have to be 100, but then Rahane knows his numbers well enough. In his last 28 completed Test rounds, he has one hundred – the 112 against Australia in Melbourne, which came in a winning case. The only other notable contribution is 61 on Lord’s.

On the eve of the match, Rahane said that “even 30s and 40s that help win means something.”

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No question about that statement, but then the ‘question’ is, who comes up with that statement? If it’s a lower order dough, it does not matter, but if it’s a top order specialist, it can mean two things.

Either the player has lowered the crossbar for himself, or he is extremely short in confidence or both. Can an Indian team afford two casual players at numbers 3 and 5 on a tour where they have the best chance of getting past the Proteas? The answer will come soon, but for the once-so-reliable duo, time is actually crucial.

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