The year 2008 wasn’t unfolding the way Rahul Dravid had imagined. He had quit captaincy the year before to focus on his batting, but the runs were still scarce. It was during this lean patch that India’s No.3 would finish a four-Test series against Australia with an average of 17. The Wall is crumbling – it became such a boring cliche that sub-editors would get pulled up for using it in headlines. It seemed, Dravid, still in his early 30s, had started his walk into the sunset.
At the lowest point of his glowing international career, Dravid got assurance from an unexpected source. The story goes that at the end of the final Test of the India-Australia series, long after stumps were drawn, awards given and speeches made, Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting went looking for his rival who was coping with his horror run. The two No.3s weren’t friends, nor were they bitter rivals.
Years later, when Ponting retired, Dravid, in his tribute piece, would share the details of the chat the cricketing greats had with him that day. “Look, I’ve been following your batting through the series and I know you’re struggling for runs, and people are after your blood. But I want to tell you, I still think you’re playing well. Hang in there.” Ponting had done Indian cricket a big favour.
Dravid did hang in. He got his form back and also a second wind. Had he given up, the world wouldn’t have seen Dravid’s finest hour – three hundreds during his last tour of England in 2011.
Close to a decade after his retirement, Dravid, now India coach, would take a call on two seasoned batsmen fighting the kind of slump he had faced back in 2008. In January 2022, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, both in their early 30s and woefully out of form, would have modest outings in the three Tests in South Africa. The sword hanging over their heads was now dangling dangerously close.
It was on the same tour that Dravid had a brutally honest conversation with another old hand, 37-year-old wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha. It was clear that Team India, led by Virat Kohli, was keen on transition. Selective weeding had started as the fresh carted new saplings were to be sowed.
In an interview with ESPNCricinfo.com, Saha would give details of the talk with Dravid where he was told that his services were no longer needed. “After the South Africa series, Rahul bhai called me to the room and said, ‘Wriddhi, I don’t know how to say this, but for some time now, the selectors and the team management have been wanting to look at a new face (as wicketkeeper)… Don’t be shocked if you are not selected for the Sri Lanka Tests. In the meantime, if you want to take some other decision, you can do that.”
Culling of the veterans
Not just Saha, even Pujara and Rahane might not have been shocked. The signs were already there. After the South Africa series, they all were dropped for the subsequent home series against Sri Lanka. The average age of the team had dropped, and so did the experience quotient. It’s not known if someone had a Ponting-kind of conversation with them but it can be safely said that no one from the team management had asked them to “hang on”.
The three old-school cricketers are men of different skills and style, but they share a common character trait. If players were to be slotted by their basic nature; Pujara, Rahane and Saha can be safely put in a box with a ‘strong and silent’ label. Not known to show much emotions on the field, they cleverly camouflage the ingrained ruthlessness in them. One can see the resolve in their eyes but fear, apprehension or even joy rarely reflects on their faces.
They seem like cricketers from an earlier era, the one in which Dravid played. When Kohli’s team would break into a loud over-the-top celebration after the fall of a crucial dismissal, they seemed like grown-ups at a party for teenagers. Pujara and Rahane were popular but not quite the modern-day influencers. Their dropping did ignite sympathy but not outrage. They were active on social media but couldn’t orchestrate trends or mass virtual protests.
Out of the Indian team, if Pujara, Rahane and Saha hoped to have a ‘second wind’, they would have to find their own meadow and their own sky. They didn’t have Dravid-kind of luxury. They were abandoned and now it was up to them to find their way back.
It's just what Pujara does. ????
???? @cheteshwar1 pic.twitter.com/hgMWnxDn8T
— Sussex Cricket (@SussexCCC) May 5, 2023
Pujara’s record-breaking season for Sussex would see him return to the team within months of his sacking. On his return, he would get a hundred against Bangladesh and in a matter of 12 months, the team management would change its opinion – Pujara was once again the team’s batting mainstay, the reliable No.3.
At present, while all his teammates are busy with the slam-bang T20 version, Pujara is in whites playing county cricket in England. The man who lost the Test captaincy race to KL Rahul, a player with no experience of leading a side at any level, is now being raved as an inspirational Sussex skipper. In-charge of a young side, with Aussie star Steve Smith as a foreign signing, Pujara has had three hundreds in four games. With him at the helm, Sussex dares to dream of promotion. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he is best-prepared to take on the Aussie bowlers in the World Test Championship final at The Oval, starting within a few days of the IPL final.
Working their way back
While Pujara was architecting Sussex’s ground-breaking season, his old mates Rahane and Saha were auditioning to win back their India Test whites while in their franchise colours. After sitting out for the first two games of the season, a series of injuries in the CSK camp gave Rahane his first game.
It was against Mumbai Indians at Wankhede that the India discard got into the playing XI. At the end of the game, there would have been a few misty eyes in the MCA members’ pavilion, where past Mumbai cricketers sit. Mumbai has a tendency to get emotional about batsmanship. They celebrate grittiness, they call it khadoos.
Rahane turned back the clock, he was playing like he once used to. He had chosen his backyard to show the world that he had hit a second wind.
He was once again middling the ball like he used to during that early magical phase of his career – those 17 successive away Tests where he had centuries in England, Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka and 90s in South Africa and Bangladesh.
Rahane had hung in and was recalled to the Test side for the WTC final. Saha too has played a few blazing knocks for Gujarat Titans. There is a compelling argument that he too should return to the Test fold. Easily the most competent stumper in the country, he also has the other mandatory skill that captains look for in a modern wicketkeeper. Saha can score quick runs down the order. However, the selectors preferred Ishan Kishan over him. Maybe, recalling both him and Rahane for the WTC final would have been an embarrassing rollback for the decision-makers.
Saha might have missed out but Rahane and Pujara are back together. As if tied together by some invisible thread, fate has ensured that they are in with a chance to win a world title. Like Dravid’s finest hour in England back in 2011, Test specialists Rahane and Pujara too have a chance to make the trip to the Oval memorable. This can’t be a mere coincidence, there is a message written in the stars. Sport is unpredictable but it would be way too unfair if India had won the WTC without the two great Test players – Rahane and Pujara – together in the line-up.