Yuvraj Singh and Gautam Gambhir do not find themselves among the 45 best first-class players outside of the India team set-up. That's the message the selectors seemed to have sent by leaving them out of the Duleep Trophy, which begins on September 7. With Gambhir having opened for India in Tests as late as last year and Yuvraj being part of the limited-overs side until June, it is perhaps a strong indication that the national selectors have moved on from the pair.
The MSK Prasad-led selection committee has repeatedly pointed out - often using the Ashish Nehra example - that age isn't a barrier to being picked for the national side. However, after the Champions Trophy, some non-negotiable fitness guidelines had been laid down; Prasad made it clear that if someone failed to adhere to the parameters set, he wouldn't be considered for selection.
Suresh Raina's case is a good illustration of how things stand. There are suggestions that he hadn't been considered for national selection in recent times after failing to meet the requisite fitness standards set by the team management. ESPNcricinfo has learnt that the selectors are keeping a close watch on Raina's batting and fitness during the Duleep Trophy, where he will lead India Blue. Some impressive performances in the tournament will put him right back in contention for a limited-overs slot. That's why the importance of doing well in a domestic tournament like the Duleep Trophy can't be overstated, as Gambhir in particular would know. He captained the India Blue side last year and had a productive outing with 356 runs, including four fifties from five innings at an average of 71.20. The performance earned him a recall to the India side after two years.
Yuvraj was picked for the limited-overs series against England last year after the selectors were convinced of his form and fitness during the Ranji Trophy. The vote of confidence was cast after Yuvraj stacked up 672 runs in five games, including scores of 260 and 177. The rationale, according to a BCCI official, was if he could bat that long to amass so many runs then he was hungry and fit enough to play 50-overs cricket. The same official now feels neither Yuvraj nor Gambhir has a realistic chance of playing Test cricket again.
Unlike Yuvraj, Gambhir did not have an impressive 2016-17 Ranji Trophy, making only 235 runs from eight innings at an average of 29.37. This was likely to have given further vindication to the selectors' decision to drop him from the Duleep Trophy. Both players will turn 36 in a few months, and neither was particularly impressive the previous time they turned out for India. While Yuvraj had a poor Champions Trophy where he aggregated 105 runs in four innings before not touching 40 in the West Indies and being dropped thereafter, Gambhir notched up scores of 29, 50, 29 and 0 in his comeback Test series against New Zealand and England in India, following which he was axed.
Meanwhile, a talented group of youngsters will play in the Duleep Trophy; it is understood that the tournament is being seen by the selectors as an opportunity to take stock of a broader pool of young talent ahead of a busy Test season that will have India play at home against Sri Lanka before the overseas challenges of England, Australia and New Zealand. It is also understood that the likes of Gambhir and Yuvraj, if given another chance with India, won't get the same number of opportunities that a youngster coming into the side for the first time gets.
This means the likes of Abhinav Mukund, Shreyas Iyer, Karun Nair and Rishabh Pant have an advantage over Yuvraj and Gambhir, who will now have to ensure that they check the twin boxes of runs and fitness during the rest of the domestic season. With teams being divided into four groups this Ranji Trophy season, they will need to remember there are fewer opportunities to showcase their wares during the league phase.
There is one rider: Yuvraj's omission from the Duleep Trophy squads could mean he still has a chance, however slender, of being picked for the limited-overs series against Australia, which begins on September 17 and overlaps with the Duleep Trophy.