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India's Tour Of South Africa 2023-24: Omission Of Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara Signals Change Of Guard In Tests

Lack of big scores in their previous red-ball outings and the the upsurge of Shreyas Iyer, Yashasvi Jaiswal and Ishan Kishan might be why Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane were omitted from India's Test squad for South Africa

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Cheteshwar Pujara.
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Change is the only constant in Indian cricket. With the massive yet burgeoning online scrutiny of every single move made by players and selectors alike, the country's international cricketers are now only as good as their most recent numbers. And that is where time appears to have run out for Indian Test batting bulwarks Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane.

Both senior pros have been left out of India's Test squad for the upcoming 2023/24 South Africa tour. This, despite the challenging and seamer-friendly conditions prevalent in the Highveld and the apparent need for experienced batters to negotiate them. 

Shreyas Iyer has played a sum total of 10 Test matches - none of them in or against South Africa - so far and yet he was preferred over both Pujara and Rahane in India's quest for their first-ever series victory on South African soil. This clearly indicates an imminent change of guard in the Indian middle-order.

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Despite all the accolades both Rahane and Pujara have amassed on tricky overseas tours, this seems like the end of the road for both. The reasoning for this could be two-fold - both players' lack of big scores in their recent Test outings and the upsurge of talented young batters waiting for their chance to shine.

Interestingly, Rahane had replaced Iyer in the XI for the World Test Championship final at The Oval, and had even scored a gritty, counter-attacking 89 there. But Rahane could only manage dismal scores of 3 and 8 in the two-Test West Indies series post that, and with Iyer returning and shining bright in the 2023 ODI World Cup, the 28-year-old has displaced his 35-year-old Mumbai colleague.

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As for Pujara, the writing was perhaps on the wall. His last century came in 2022 against Bangladesh in Chattogram, and the man from Rajkot has since aggregated just 211 runs in six Test matches, with a solitary 50-plus score in the 10 times he batted in those Tests.

Meanwhile, the young brigade, who have been insistently knocking the door, have been rewarded with the big call-up. Wicketkeeper-batter Ishan Kishan and Yashasvi Jaiswal have both been drafted into the side with the hope that they will display their attacking prowess on South Africa's bouncy pitches. 

However, filling the void left by Rahane and Pujara is no walk in the park. Dropping the two veteran right-handers means Virat Kohli might bat at number 3 (after openers Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill), leaving Iyer and KL Rahul for numbers 4 and 5. The fact that KL has kept wickets so well recently might even tempt Rahul Dravid and Rohit to ask the stylish Karnataka batter to do the same in the South Africa Tests.

If that happens, the sixth spot in the batting order might become a toss-up between Jaiswal and Kishan. While the former has done well as an opener in earlier Tests, he is unlikely to find an opening at the top given the presence of Rohit and Gill. It remains to be seen who the team management decides to go with and in what position. But to flourish at the highest level and make the change of guard a success, the youngsters will need to embrace whatever that decision turns out to be.  

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