At times, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara might feel like they are stuck in a time loop because by now, every morning for them will be laced with the grim familiarity of an uncertain future. This feeling has nothing to do with the pandemic and so much more to do with their seemingly never-ending run of poor form.

But like with so many veterans, the team management won’t publicly throw them under the bus. Rather, each time the question of form is raised, we hear the now very worn-out refrain: “They are training well, looking good in the nets, and are hopefully just a knock away from finding from.”

But is it ever that easy? Can you really be one knock away? Can one knock simply blow away the years or months of poor form? If only it were that easy.

On day one at the Wanderers stadium, Rahane and Pujara’s wait for that one knock got longer. With Virat Kohli already out of the Test due to a back spasm, the veterans needed to step up and it just looked like they didn’t have the legs.

Stand-in skipper KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal gave India a fairly solid start but when the latter was dismissed, the runs simply dried up.

Rahul had looked to play patiently and he was joined in the middle by Pujara, who always looked to play patiently. But patient-plus-patient do not a good combination make. The scoreboard virtually ground to a standstill and the South African bowlers grew in confidence.

After a few close shaves, Pujara was eventually dismissed after making three off 33 deliveries. Duanne Olivier bowled a short-of-length delivery outside the off stump. It seemed to bounce a bit extra on him before catching the shoulder of Pujara’s bat and looping to point for an easy catch.

On the very next delivery, Rahane’s tentative push outside the off-stump was caught in the third slip by Keegan Petersen. He was out for a golden duck.

It wasn’t what India would have wanted but to be fair, it was expected. The two batters haven’t inspired any confidence for a while now. In the commentary box, former India skipper Sunil Gavaskar felt that the duo are almost out of time.

“After those two dismissals one can say that they probably have just the next innings, both Pujara and Rahane, to save their Test careers,” Gavaskar said.

He added: “There have been questions asked about their place in the team and now with these two dismissals they have just one innings left. If there is another innings and the way India is going, it looks like there will be another for them to score something and maybe keep their place in the team.”

Not a sudden drop

The scary part for both batters is that this is not a sudden drop but rather it has been a slow and steady decline.

Over the last two years, Rahane has averaged 24.55 at No 5 (his usual batting position) with no centuries and only two fifties to his name. He is lauded for scoring the tough runs but if he is just going to score twenties and thirties, surely there are better alternatives around.

At what point does the long rope start getting tangled up in itself? Rahane’s batting simply doesn’t inspire any confidence in anyone else other than the opposition bowlers. The team is still doing well but he doesn’t look like he is the long-term solution that the team needs.

No 5 bats around the world in the last 2 years

Player Mat Inns NO Runs HS Ave BF SR 100 50
BA Stokes (ENG) 12 19 0 747 176 39.31 1514 49.33 2 2
Mushfiqur Rahim (BAN) 9 14 2 658 203* 54.83 1336 49.25 1 3
HM Nicholls (NZ) 12 15 1 658 174 47.00 1380 47.68 2 3
DM de Silva (SL) 7 11 2 609 166 67.66 1069 56.96 2 3
Fawad Alam (PAK) 10 12 3 548 140 60.88 1129 48.53 3 2
AM Rahane (INDIA) 12 18 0 442 67 24.55 1115 39.64 0 2
KR Mayers (WI) 4 6 1 280 210* 56.00 440 63.63 1 0
Courtesy ESPNCricinfo Statsguru (Men's Test matches)

Pujara finds himself in a similar boat. An average of below-30 over two years should not cut it for a top team. He has seven fifties to his name in this time but no hundreds.

After a period where he found ways to grind down the opposition, he has been regularly falling short of even the bare minimum. This isn’t about his scoring rate or his intent at all. This is simply about scoring runs and isn’t that what batters are supposed to do?

No 3 bats around the world in the last 2 years

Player Mat Inns Runs HS Ave BF SR 100 50 0
M Labuschagne (AUS) 7 13 877 215 73.08 1709 51.31 3 4 0
KS Williamson (NZ) 8 12 869 251 79.00 1657 52.44 3 2 0
CA Pujara (INDIA) 19 32 805 91 25.96 2511 32.05 0 7 3
Azhar Ali (PAK) 14 21 794 141* 44.11 1850 42.91 2 3 4
Najmul Hossain Shanto (BAN) 10 18 615 163 36.17 1198 51.33 2 2 4
Z Crawley (ENG) 6 10 385 267 38.50 649 59.32 1 1 2
NE Bonner (WI) 7 11 344 113* 38.22 982 35.03 1 1 2
Courtesy ESPNCricinfo Statsguru (Men's Test matches)

The problem is further compounded by Kohli’s lack of runs and as Rahul Dravid said pre match it is not quite common for three good batters to be struggling simultaneously like this. Traditionally, India’s biggest strength in men’s Test cricket. the Nos 3, 4 and 5 have just not been at it in recent times. The good results have been despite the form of the senior batters in the middle order. But while the ‘one good knock’ seems more realistic for Kohli, who is batting well but not converting starts, the same cannot be said for the other two senior men.

If this isn’t a call for change then nothing else will be. It makes sense to back the veterans, after all, they have done the job for the team over the years. But there has to be a cut-off point; a fuse that tells you the rope has reached the burning point.

Their backers might argue that they bring a wealth of experience to the middle but if they can’t bring runs with that experience, they aren’t doing any favours to themselves or to the team. For a long time now, both batters have been part of the ‘one knock away’ brigade but with time running out, they might just have time for one knock to save themselves.