This article has been updated following the injury to KL Rahul, who was ruled out of the two-Test series earlier today
The matches keep coming non-stop and so in three days’ time, Team India will be locking horns with New Zealand in the first of two Tests. But it will be a match like no other in recent times, for the hosts will be without Virat Kohli (rested for the first Test), Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah among others.
That means two things: one, there will be an opportunity for players in the fringes to make a mark and two, the management will have quite a few calls to make with respect to the team combination.
Ahead of the much-anticipated first Test in Kanpur, we look at who can fit in where, and also analyze the different combinations team India could potentially field.
The opening slot - Gill and Agarwal all but fixed to open following Rahul injury
Up until a few hours ago, India’s opening combination for the first Test remained a mystery. With all of Shubman Gill, KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal available, it seemed that the management had a tricky call to make. Well, not anymore. With Rahul officially ruled out of the series with a muscle strain, the opening combination of Gill and Agarwal picks itself, for there are no other specialist openers in the squad.
Losing Rahul is unfortunate, but it is by no means a terrible scenario for India. In Agarwal they have a batsman who has been unstoppable at home, having scored 597 runs in 6 innings at an average of 99.50, including two double-centuries. This will be a good opportunity to re-integrate him back into the scheme of things, with the 30-year-old having last played a Test nearly a year ago.
It will be a great opportunity for Gill too, given the youngster has not quite lived up to expectation at home, having averaged just 19.83 across 7 innings. Rahul’s injury means that Gill will be returning to Test cricket in a position familiar to him.
The only downside to this is that the management will now have to wait longer before finding out whether Gill can be a potential future middle-order option.
Middle-order: No.5 spot up for grabs
A toss-up between Shreyas Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav
Rahul’s injury not just has implications for the opening slot, but for the middle-order too. It means that the No.5 slot is a direct toss-up between Shreyas Iyer and the latest member added to the squad, Suryakumar Yadav.
This is an interesting battle because these are essentially two white-ball specialists, who have all but no red-ball cricket under their belt, going toe-to-toe for a place in the Test side.
Suryakumar was a late-addition to the Test squad for the tour of England, too, but the fact remains that he has not played any first-class cricket since February 2020. He has an overall first-class average of 44.01, which is pretty good, but he has considerably improved on these numbers since 2019, having averaged 55.1 (11 innings).
His competitor, on the other hand, has not played any red-ball cricket since February 2019, but Iyer, regardless, will feel that he is fully deserving of a debut. The 26-year-old has grinded it out in the domestic circuit for years without any reward, and it is a travesty that, with a FC average of 52.18, he still has not played Test cricket for the country.
Iyer has been long-earmarked for a Test debut, and it is worth remembering that it was him, and not Suryakumar, who got picked in the original squad. He might therefore be not mistaken to think that he is ahead in the picking order.
All in all, though, there is little to separate these two. It is an extremely close call, and who plays come Thursday might come down to the management’s instinct.
The wicket-keeper conundrum: Saha or Bharat?
It’s been a while since India have had to think about wicket-keepers, but with Rishabh Pant rested, the management have a big call to make: Wriddhiman Saha or Srikar Bharat?
Saha would be the safer option and it would also make logical sense to play him, given he’s been with the senior side all along, serving as Pant’s back-up.
But the management also have a rare chance to blood-in someone like a KS Bharat, who has also been on the fringes for quite a while and has shown that he is on the verge of breaking through.
Bharat also, like Iyer, has not played any first class cricket in the past year and a half, but he had a stellar Ranji campaign in the 2019/20 season, where he averaged 37 with the bat and inflicted more dismissals (37) than any other keeper in the competition.
It’s between youth and experience, and the management’s call will tell us a lot about the direction they are planning to head in in the immediate future.
Five bowlers yes, but three spinners or three pacers?
Across each of the four Tests against England earlier this year, India fielded three spinners. But that was due to the extreme nature of the wickets, which were skewed completely in favour of the slower bowlers.
Here, though fielding an Axar-Ashwin-Jadeja trio might seem like a no-brainer, the possibility of India potentially playing three seamers cannot be ruled out either. Particularly given they have four quicker bowlers in the squad. Not to mention, the 2019 home season saw India go with the 3-2 combo (three pacers, two spinners) in all but one match. It was a strategy that yielded them great success too.
The prospect of a debut for Prasidh Krishna looks unlikely, so we’ll have to imagine that if there even is a slim chance of India fielding three pacers, it will depend on the fitness of Mohammed Siraj.
Siraj hurt his finger in the first T20I versus New Zealand, and missed the last two games due to the same reason. With no clarity on his fitness yet, it is unclear whether he will make the cut for the first Test.
For now it’s safe to assume that India will field three spinners, but it won’t be a shock if they put all their eggs in the Ashwin-Jadeja basket and pick an extra seamer.