The time has arrived. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy, one of the spiciest Test rivalries of the 21st century, is only two sleeps away. India will go into the first Test in Nagpur with a few questions regarding their XI - some head-scratcher and some relatively easier to answer.
In this space, we check different combination possibilities for India ahead of the series opener.
Rahul, Rohit back at the top?
The Nagpur Test is the first occasion India will have both KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma available since the four Tests in England in 2021. It seems like a long time ago. India had a new opening pair every series throughout 2022, filling in for the absence of either Rahul or Rohit, or even both, due to various reasons.
Owing to his immense future potential and amazing form in other formats, Shubman Gill has a strong case to keep his spot as an opener. His sub-par Test average of 32 is perceived as a number that should only improve in the near future. Hence, there are some question marks if both Rohit and Rahul should continue with their incumbency as Test openers. But given they have proven themselves in the toughest of conditions - Rohit with a hundred in England and Rahul with centuries in both England and South Africa - India’s opening pair seems all but certain for Nagpur.
Interestingly, Gill was supposed to be the first-choice opening partner for Rohit during those four Tests in England before injury ruled him out and Rahul grabbed his opportunity to establish himself. With Gill preceding Rahul in line as the first-choice opener now has a philosophical touch to it.
The most debatable spot
If Shreyas Iyer was fit, his spot at number five would be a straightforward decision. However, his absence creates the most debatable call for the management, split between two candidates - Gill and Suryakumar Yadav. Earlier reports hint that India have wanted to try Gill as a number five batter in Tests, due to his renowned watertight technique against spin bowling. The reports didn’t materialize given the side was bereft of the first choice openers.
Will India finally try Gill at five now with both Rahul and Rohit available at the top of the order? There remains the temptation of playing Suryakumar Yadav. A late bloomer, Surya has tasted immense success but all of his international experience has come in white-ball cricket. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a one-trick pony. Surya has over 5000 first-class runs, brought up with 14 hundreds in as many as 79 games. Since 2019, Surya has played only eight first-class games but averages 59.5 at a strike-rate of 91.
If India are looking for intent in the middle-order in Rishabh Pant’s absence, Surya is the most efficient batter in the current squad to assume the role.
It will be the most tricky decision to make for India which will only be assessed in the hindsight with merits and demerits attached to both candidates. The cricket fraternity has already exhibited polarised opinions on this dilemma.
Which wicketkeeper makes his debut?
Pant’s absence also vacates the wicketkeeper’s spot. India have two options in the squad - KS Bharat and Ishan Kishan. Bharat has been the next in line for quite a while now, filling in for the specialist wicketkeeper when New Zealand toured India in 2021. On pecking order alone, Bharat should make the cut. However, Kishan is a more like-for-like replacement for Pant - an attacking left-handed batter. If India opt for Gill at number five and are still keen to infuse intent in their batting, the southpaw will stand more than a decent chance.
There is little to separate between the two in terms of their overall first-class record. Bharat averages 37.95 in his red-ball career while Kishan stands at 38.76. The former is more polished in terms of experience, earning 86 first-class caps as compared to Kishan’s 48. He is a safer glovesman against spin, being a more consistent feature in domestic cricket. Not to forget their recent experience of red-ball cricket. Kishan has only two first-class games in the last 12 months - scores of 13, 13, 22 and 132. Bharat meanwhile, has played eight first-class games since 2022, amassing four fifties to average 47.1.
In any case, India will have a new face behind the stumps.
Who frames the spin attack?
Another head-scratcher for India. Considering they will play three spinners at most, the management will have to take the harsh call of deciding between Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav. Ashwin is a locked-in. Assuming India will field three spinners, Jadeja can be expected to make it to the XI as a spin-bowling batting all-rounder despite not playing much cricket in the last five months.
The choice, or the dilemma, is between Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav. In eight Tests, Axar has pouched 47 wickets at 14.3 runs apiece. It is a fantastic record, especially when you couple it with his handy batting average of 22.6, making him an ideal number eight. Kuldeep has been on an ascension in his career and offers a wrist-spin option, while Axar and Jadeja are similar kind of spinners. Kuldeep is no mug with the bat too, however, Axar clearly adds more to the batting depth.
The wrist-spinner will take confidence from his Test record versus Australia - two Tests, nine wickets at 21.1 runs per scalp including a five-wicket haul.
The choice is for India to make - more control or more variety? Twice, India have fielded a spin attack comprising Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar.
The option of playing only two spinners is also open for India. In that case, there will be stiff competition between Jadeja and Axar. In any scenario, dropping Axar seems like a tough prospect.
Siraj or Umesh?
Again, the presumption that India will play three spinners leaves only two spots for specialist pacers. Mohammad Shami, being the most experienced pro, is an obvious choice, putting Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Siraj in competition with each other.
Nagpur is Umesh’s homeground but that might not be enough for him to leapfrog Siraj in the pecking order. Since his Test debut, Siraj has played joint most Tests for an Indian pacer (15) alongside Jasprit Bumrah while Umesh has only featured in six Tests. This stat alone tells the tale.
The Vidarbha pacer has a terrific record in India - 47.2 balls per wicket for his 98 wickets - but unless the conditions compel India to play to three seamers, it might be another game for Umesh on the bench. The world has not been fair to Umesh Yadav and the Nagpur Test might exemplify the same.