India vs South Africa: Dropping Rishabh Pant, India gives a strong message at the start of the Test series

On a sunny morning in Dharamsala with a day to go for the T20 series against South Africa, India coach Ravi Shastri talked of a ‘rap on the knuckles.’ Captain Virat Kohli was at his side, Rishabh Pant the player under the schoolmasterly gaze. Shastri was not amused by the young Pant’s shot selection in the preceding West Indies tour. Three weeks and 23 runs (in two T20s) later, Pant has been swapped with Wriddhiman Saha as the wicketkeeper for the first Test against the Proteas starting on Wednesday.

This will be Saha’s first international match since the Cape Town Test against South Africa in January, 2018, having struggled with injuries that forced him out of the England and Australia tours and then proving his fitness and form. After scoring Test centuries in England, where he made his debut, and Australia, Pant had looked like he had found his feet in the playing eleven, though there were question marks on his wicket-keeping abilities at the highest level. After new batting coach Vikram Rathour weighed in with the “fearless and careless” comment, the youngster’s position had looked shaky and it was confirmed on Tuesday he would sit out.

Kohli’s pre-match statements indicated Pant’s omission was not really unexpected. The skipper hailed Saha as ‘the best keeper in the world’, and that he had fully recovered from his injuries and the 34-year-old was in the right mode to re-enter the eleven.

“Saha was always going to be someone we would back as a pure keeper in Test cricket, and he’s done well under pressure situations in the past. So, it was just about finding the right opportunity and moment to bring him back in, and you need to be wary of those things in a team environment where you understand when to bring a player back, and when to give another guy more opportunities,” Kohli said. “We felt Rishabh, given the opportunities, had done well. Although Saha was always going to start, we felt to just let him ease back into things rather than just forcing him into starting immediately.” Saha was in the squad in the West Indies.

The team management wants everyone to believe the 21-year-old Pant’s 11 Test-run had a lot to do with Saha’s injuries. Yet the nature of Saha’s injuries—that saw him out of the Test team for more than a year—has been a matter of some confusion.

When Saha was ruled out of the last two Tests in South Africa in January 2018, it was said to be a hamstring problem. In the IPL in April-May, he suffered a thumb fracture. When the squad for the 2018 England Tour was announced on July 18, and Pant and Dinesh Karthik were chosen over Saha, there was no mention of any injuries. It was only three days after the selection meeting that BCCI issued a bulletin stating that Saha was nursing a shoulder tear. It only added to speculation whether Saha was being left out due to injury or there were other reasons for drafting in Pant and Karthik. The team management has constantly tinkered with the combination in search of a perfect balance, which only added to the doubts.

Now that Pant is out of the eleven following a sequence of events that was supposedly always bound to happen, the team management can be assured about this position for now. However, the musical chairs don’t end there, with the spin department too joining it.

By the looks of it, the pitch at the ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium here will provide assistance to the spinners. There was no grass on the track and India have decided to go with two off-spinners—Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.

Till a year back, Ashwin would have been India’s automatic choice as the No.1 spinner but times have changed, and Kohli seemed to make it clear. “Wherever the conditions provide us to go with two spinners, Ash is always going to be a threat. In home conditions with his batting ability and the way he bowls, he is always going to be starting with Jadeja. That was a no brainer for us,” he said.

In the last Test series in the Windies, Ashwin warmed the bench with Jadeja playing as the lone spinner. “Ashwin and Jadeja both will start here. Jaddu we felt was in a better zone as far as performing overseas and (looking at) what he has done in the past season for the team. From that point of view, he started in the West Indies.”

Ashwin did not finish the England and Australia series. He broke down in the fourth Test at Southampton and missed the final game at the Oval. In Australia, he again broke down, this time in the first Test to be ruled out of the next three matches. The off-spinner now has a point to prove. The sight of a young South African side would only make Ashwin hungry.

The same cannot be said about Rohit Sharma. Having been given another opportunity to prove his worth in Tests, this time as opener, Sharma knows how important the series will be. A home contest won’t allow him to breathe easy as he will face Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada—both have dismissed the batsman three times each.

To Sharma’s benefit, Kohli indicated he will be given a long run to settle into the new position. “This (Sharma as opener) has been discussed for a long time now. In one-day cricket, it was the same. He played in the middle order, but then suddenly opening conversation happened and within six to eight months, he was opening the innings. And you know what happened afterwards,” Kohli said.

“We’re not looking to rush him at all. It’s about him finding his game accordingly because in India it’s going to be a different practice that you follow, abroad is going to be different. So, opening is a slot where you have to give a player space to understand his game. So yeah, we’re in no rush.”

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