The number one team in the world. The number one batsman in the world. The number one spinner in the world. A historic series win in Australia. These are just some of India’s feats in the Test arena currently and in recent times.
It’s a fresh start now though. The inception of the ICC World Test Championship sees it, and not the Test rankings, being the de facto tool of judgement for performances in the longest form of the game. Add to that, India’s losses in South Africa and England last year and you’ll know that, despite an impressive run recently, the Virat Kohli-led side have not yet scaled the peak of Test cricket.
India have a few problems, most notably at the top of the order. Prithvi Shaw’s doping-related suspension will likely result in an all-Karnataka opening partnership: Mayank Agarwal and KL Rahul. While Agarwal’s place is in little doubt after an impressive start to his Test career down under, Rahul’s faltering red-ball form is concerning, with the 27-year-old registering only one 50+ score in his last 18 innings.
On day one of India’s warm-up game against West Indies A, BCCI’s Twitter account described Rahul’s knock as a “confident 36”. Sure, six boundaries and a strike rate of 78.26 indicate good touch, but almost five years into his international career, the score has to match the adjective.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli are guaranteed starters at three and four respectively. While the latter is the top-ranked Test batsman in the world, Pujara - ranked four - has come of age in foreign conditions over the last year, beginning with the Test series against England. After being dropped for the first Test, he made his return to the line-up in the second game at Lord’s. He didn’t set the stage on fire, managing scores of just 1 and 17.
In the next Test at Nottingham, under huge pressure, the Saurashtra batter made a crucial 72 in the second innings which helped India seal the game. He followed that up with a century in the fourth Test at Southampton. And there’s been no looking back since. Until that Lord’s Test, Pujara’s average outside Asia was 26.32. Since then, in seven away Tests, it’s 65.08.
While Rishabh Pant - averaging almost 50 in his young Test career - looks to have sealed his place as the wicketkeeper-batsman, but in the past, India have had a policy to bring starters who’ve been injured right back into the XI. Will they do the same with Wriddhiman Saha? Considering the lengthy layoff and Pant’s form, it’s unlikely. Regarding the other spots in the lower middle-order, it’s anybody’s guess as to who will occupy them.
Since Kohli took over as skipper, India have changed team combinations countless times. And that’s the big question once again. Will they pick five specialist bowlers or will they rely on four to get the job done? If they go ahead with the former tactic, then they can only pick one of Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma or Hanuma Vihari.
Rahane is getting a long rope on the basis of his exploits at the start of his career. The 31-year-old hasn’t notched up a single three-digit score since August 2017 and you wonder when the Indian team management’s patience will wane out. On the other hand, there’s Rohit who returned to the Test scene during the series against Australia. Having scored an unbeaten fifty in his last Test and on the back of superlative form at the World Cup, he might get the nod.
Vihari is yet to make a major impact in Tests, but his recent hundred against West Indies A will help his case. There are a couple of other factors that might also work in his favour: (a) his ability to bowl off-spin and, because of it, he’s a more appealing option than Rahane and Rohit if India play four bowlers, (b) he opened during the MCG Test last year and there’s a chance he opens ahead of Rahul here.
On the bowling front, again, a lot will depend on the team combination. If the visitors play five bowlers, either Ravindra Jadeja or Ravichandran Ashwin will get into the team and bat at number seven. While Kuldeep Yadav is the favourite to play in case India play a sole spinner, one must not count Ashwin. After all, the Tamil Nadu cricketer has a stunning record against the Windies.
In 11 matches against the men from the Caribbean, Ashwin has scored 552 runs at an average of 50.18 including all four career centuries. His bowling records are even more magnificent: 60 wickets at 21.85 runs apiece. In fact, he was the Player of the Series when India last visited West Indies for a Test series. The Indian think-tank have a tough call to make, but such a position is always a good one to be in.
The West Indies, on the other hand, come into the series after a morale-boosting 2-1 victory over England earlier this year. It was their first Test series win over a top eight team since 2012. The key for them against India is to build on that success and not go back to their old ways. It’ll be a tough task against the number one team in the world, but with a majestic pace bowling line-up, they stand a decent chance.
Since 2017, among all bowlers who have taken 25+ Test wickets, only five have a better bowling average than Jason Holder (21.04) and Kemar Roach (21.14). When it comes to bowling strike rate, there are only three bowlers bettering Roach’s 42.8 and Shannon Gabriel’s 44.9 during this period. Three pacers with an average of below of 25 and a strike rate of below 50 over a 30-month period possess considerable threat to any batting line-up.
Uncapped spinner Rahkeem Cornwall’s selection comes as no surprise. Since 2018, he’s the joint-highest wicket-taking West Indian spinner in first-class cricket (71). One thing that might go against Cornwall, though, is the fact that he is a right-arm off-spinner.
In his last 21 first-class matches, he has a far better bowling average (15.23) and strike rate (43.7) against left-handed batsmen than right-handers (average - 31.78, strike rate - 58.6). And with India likely to have just one left-handed batsman in the top seven, this could be a hurdle.
On the batting front, Roston Chase and Holder have been key in the middle-order. The former made his debut against India in 2016 and, famously, scored a gutsy hundred to save the Kingston Test. And he has been a solid Test player since. In fact, since 2017, no West Indian batsman has scored more Test runs (1296) than Chase.
Meanwhile, during the same period, among all West Indian batsmen who’ve scored at least 100 runs, it’s Holder who has the highest average (39.28). His most notable knock came during the Bridgetown Test against England earlier this year when he notched up an unbeaten double century to lead his side to a famous series win.
Over the course of his Test career, the Windies skipper averages the least (22.57) and has the worst dismissal rate (44.0) against left-arm orthodox spin. Hence, if India don’t pick Jadeja - their highest-ranked bowler - it is bound to help Holder.
Kraigg Braithwaite’s performances over the last two years is a bit of a worry for the hosts. After being their most reliable batsmen until 2017, his numbers have dropped drastically over the last two years. Since 2018, he has 529 runs in 23 innings at a lowly average of 25.19. With India owning a top pace attack, the onus will be on the Barbados opener to see off the new ball. If he does that successfully, the West Indies will stand a real chance of getting one over the more fancied Indian line-up.
On the back of huge series wins at the start of the year, both teams will be high on confidence. Yet, both have a long way to go before conquering the new mountain that is the World Test Championship. For a start, they must not look at past laurels and look at this series as a fresh beginning. As Sir Edmund Hillary once said: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”