An anxious Viv Richards walked up to Brian Close during the infamous 1976 Test at Old Trafford after he got hit in the chest by a Wayne Daniel delivery and sank to the floor.
Richards had played under his captaincy at Somerset but Close was defiant. Not one bit perturbed by the knock, he rumbled, “f*** off”, ready to risk further retaliation from the West Indies.
Close remains the epitome of grit and courage when it came to standing up to fast bowling. He had opened the innings in that Test and hung on for more than an hour on the third evening, taking blows from Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Daniel.
Cheteshwar Pujara almost went through similar circumstances on the final day of the Brisbane Test in January 2021. The India No.3 stood like a rock, refusing to grimace
as the Australian trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood landed 11 blows on his body leaving him with a swollen finger and bruised torso.
Pujara showed that he could gulp down the pain, never flinching in the face of pace. It was because of his dour approach that India managed to clinch the series 2-1 following a disastrous 36 all out in the first Test. He returned India’s most successful batter with 271 runs in four Tests.
When India won their first series in Australia in 2018-19, Pujara had topped the batting charts then too with 521 runs in seven innings. There were three centuries, including an epochal 193 in the final Test in Sydney.
For more than a decade, Pujara remained the ‘Wall’ of Indian batting since Rahul Dravid’s retirement in 2012. The World Test Championship (WTC) final at The Oval could now be his last.
Like in all spheres of life, the old guard has to make way for young blood. On Thursday, the national selectors decided to drop both Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane from the tour of South Africa. A combined tally of 188 Tests and 12,272 runs was thus thrown to the winds to make way for the promise of youth.
None though had done justice to their reputation of late. Pujara had ended a two-year century drought with a 102 in Chittagong but has since managed only 211 in 10 innings. His failure to find a berth in the West Indies-bound squad in August was an indication of the selectors’ mindset.
Rahane’s case is more intriguing. The world will remember him as the captain who led India to a series win Down Under with net bowlers after a calamitous first Test in Adelaide in December 2020. He turned it around with a classic 112 in Melbourne and then led admirably never letting the scars of the early reversals affect the team.
An attacking 89 in the WTC final against Australia this year provided hope to his sinking career but a mere 11 in two innings on flat surfaces in the West Indies put the proverbial final nail in a valiant bid to prolong his stint.
The talented Yashasvi Jaiswal will open with Rohit Sharma in South Africa while Shubman Gill to bat at No.3. For the No.5 slot left vacant by Rahane there will be Shreyas Iyer whose tactical acumen against the short-pitched stuff remains circumspect.
“At some point in time, you have to play new talents. It happens... Pujara and Rahane had enormous success for India, sport doesn’t remain with you forever,” Sourav Ganguly said on Friday.
The fast and bouncy pitches in Centurion and Cape Town will no doubt provide fresh challenges to the youngsters in a hostile atmosphere.
Pujara endured a torrid time during his first visit there in 2010-11 but made a greater impact on his next tour in 2013. His 153 in the second innings at the Wanderers in
Johannesburg came against an attack comprising Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel.
In a podcast after being ignored for the West Indies tour in August, Pujara admitted that “sometimes you do get frustrated... it’s not easy. Sometimes it plays around with your ego”.
The final word though can never be written in Indian cricket. Comebacks always happen when least expected and any batting disaster in South Africa could open the doors for both Pujara and Rahane. The new WTC cycle is just a series old now and tougher battles await against England and Australia next year. Who knows what’s in store for the seasoned duo.