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India hint at Rahane recall in Jo'burg

Ajinkya Rahane takes evasive action against a short ball AFP

KL Rahul, M Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara bat in three adjacent strips, against India's fast bowlers and the net bowlers specially flown in from India for this Test, at the Wanderers nets, on a rugby field behind the dressing room. By the sightscreen, Virat Kohli is talking to Ajinkya Rahane and Hardik Pandya. The conversation is not animated. There are no hand gestures, there is no laughter, and even Pandya stands still, listening in and talking seriously. About 25 minutes later, when the first three batsmen have swapped nets, these three start padding up.

On a hot Sunday morning, with Johannesburg still recovering from Saturday-night revelry and the South Africa team yet to reconvene for the Test that starts on Wednesday, India seem to have made an important decision. Nets three days before a Test - even a day before a match - are never a sure indication, but there seems to be something deliberate about these nets. Ajinkya Rahane is likely to be back for the Wanderers Test.

Even after the routine session and the slip catches thereafter, Kohli and Rahane went back into the nets for an extended session. They were the last ones to walk out of a nearly four-hour-long training session. Rahane's exclusion from the first two Tests based on "current form" - Rahane's last series was the first in his career where he failed to make an impact, while Rohit Sharma scored a hundred and two fifties - has been the biggest talking point of this series. Rahane came to South Africa as not only the vice-captain of the side, but also as its best all-conditions batsman. In fact he is one of the rare Indian batsmen with a way better record away than at home.

If Rahane does make a comeback, the big question will be: whose place does he take? A direct swap with Rohit might make sense, but that will almost be an admission from the team management that they made a mistake going into the biggest Test of their tenure, something they have been loath to admit. Moreover Rohit has never played a full series of more than two Tests, which can be a factor in his not graduating into a proper Test batsman. The team management might still want to give Rohit another chance, not least because the Wanderers pitch and weather are likely to help seam bowling and an extra batsman won't harm India.

If Rahane and Rohit both play, one out of Pandya and R Ashwin might have to sit out, which is again a difficult call. His careless run-out in Centurion notwithstanding, observers and the team management have been impressed with Pandya. He kept India alive in Cape Town with the bat, and then started India's comeback in Centurion with a brilliant run-out off his own bowling. There can be an argument against Pandya: for all his promise, he is not yet a complete No. 6 or a third seamer. There is no reason he can't be one or both of those, but are India hedging their bets a bit right now?

"Three days out, the pitch looks as green as it did six days before the Test. There has been watering and rolling to make it hard, but the 6mm grass remains"

Ashwin, too, has been in excellent rhythm. His bowling on a day-one pitch in Centurion - 31 overs, three wickets, and an economy rate of under three - kept India in the contest. He got nice drift into the left-hand batsmen, and then extracted turn and bounce. He scored important runs with the bat, but after an impressive start in the second innings couldn't get the wickets despite troubling Dean Elgar for a while.

If a bowler has to be left out, a lot will depend on the pitch. Three days out, the pitch looks as green as it did six days before the Test. There has been watering and rolling to make it hard, but the 6mm grass remains. The sun has been beating down on the Wanderers, which is why Bethuel Buthelezi, the chief groundsman, has let the grass cover stay. He says he will look at it the day before the Test, and decide if it needs clipping.

The forecast for rain interruptions during the match could prompt Buthelezi to keep the grass. Also because there are vertical cracks on the pitch already, which could keep India interested in a spinner even though South Africa have been known to toy with the idea of playing an extra batsman at the expense of the specialist spinner Keshav Maharaj.

The other selection call that will worry India - and they can do nothing about it now - is the wicketkeeper. Parthiv Patel, who replaced the injured Wirddhiman Saha in Centurion, looked better than Saha with the bat but was guilty of dropping two catches and not going for two that he should have. The only problem is that Saha's replacement in the squad and the other option now, Dinesh Karthik, doesn't have too much recent first-class cricket in his bag, and is regarded more for his batting than his wicketkeeping. Karthik played three Duleep Trophy matches - only one as a keeper - and one Ranji Trophy match last season. So his workload as a wicketkeeper since the last IPL has been two first-class matches and five T20s.

The decisions facing India are not easy ones - they never are when you are 2-0 down and fighting to avoid a whitewash - but in looking like they will bring back Rahane, they seem to have made a start.