Three days before the start of the third Test between India and England in Rajkot, India suffered a blow in the form of KL Rahul being ruled out of the match. With Virat Kohli's lengthened personal leave and Shreyas Iyer's snub, India faces a huge selection task. Without Rahul, the Indian middle-order will be filled with inexperience.
In Rahul's absence, is Sarfaraz Khan's debut inevitable? Will Ravindra Jadeja bat higher up the order? These aren't the only questions to be answered. KS Bharat or Dhruv Jurel, the wicket-keeper conundrum, two pacers or one, and more combination issues are to be addressed.
A long-awaited debut?
After toiling hard on the domestic circuit for years, Sarfaraz Khan finally got a call-up in the second Test. For most of his first-class career, the Mumbaikar has batted at #5, scoring 2688 runs at a staggering average of 89.6 in 37 innings. The one spot that is vacant as of now in the XI is number five. Rajat Patidar, who would have batted at five if Rahul were fit to play, will slot in as number four.
Jadeja at number five could prove fatal for India. Firstly, it reduces the batting depth as Ravichandran Ashwin will bat at number eight. Second, Jadeja has horrendous numbers whenever he has batted above six. In seven innings, he has scored 108 runs at an average of 15.4. On the other hand, Axar has played two innings and averages 25.5.
In any case, pushing either Jadeja or Axar takes a hit on the batting depth. This is why Sarfaraz's inclusion could solve the issue.
Will India persist with two pacers?
Two Tests, two different bowlers partnering Jasprit Bumrah in the seam department yielded the same result. While Bumrah was exceptional from one end, Siraj nullified the pressure in the first and Mukesh in the second.
With Kuldeep Yadav being the second-best bowler from the second Test, India can go with four spinners and one pacer. In all likelihood, this is a better option on the dry track in Rajkot. In the last five FC games at this venue, spinners have bagged 68.7% of the wickets.
Kuldeep also brings that X-factor of being a wrist spinner. If the surface in Rajkot turns out to be a batting paradise, then Kuldeep's variation could come in handy. Also, with two spinners in tandem, Bumrah can get sufficient rest and be fresh for fiery short spells.
Dhruv Jurel ahead of Bharat?
If India are missing one player the most, that is not Kohli or Mohammed Shami; it is Rishabh Pant. The void he has left in this Indian team is so massive that they are fielding two wicket-keepers in the same format - one for overseas and the other for home matches.
In overseas conditions, Rahul still seems to be a stable option, but Bharat is struggling to score runs in familiar conditions. He has played seven matches, all being at home. He is yet to score a half-century, and the batter averages 20.1 in those seven matches. The surfaces in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2023 were tricky. However, the two Tests from this series were the best wickets to bat in India for a long time.
With his continuous failure, India might look at Dhruv Jurel. In FC since December 2022, Jurel has been consistently among runs. The Uttar Pradesh batter has scored 600+ runs in 12 innings at an average of 57.45. In comparison, Bharat averages 32.2 in 23 innings.
Out of the blue option, three debutants?
As a replacement for Rahul, his fellow Karnataka batter Devdutt Padikkal has received a maiden Test call-up. The left-hander has been in scintillating form since the start of this year. Apart from the match against Gujarat (42 & 31), he scored 50+ in five of the six games.
In the two matches he played for India A against England Lions, he scored 105, 65 & 21. Overall, he has scored 747 runs in nine innings at an average of 83 this year.
Though his chances of getting a Test cap are unlikely, India can feature him in the XI. With an inexperienced middle order, India should consider carrying an extra batter. If Jadeja is unfit, there won't be any confusion, as India will go with Ashwin, Axar, and Kuldeep.
If Sarfaraz, Jurel, and Padikkal debut, India XI will look like this: Rohit Sharma, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Shubman Gill, Rajat Patidar, Devdutt Padikkal, Sarfaraz Khan, Ravindra Jadeja, Dhruv Jurel, Axar Patel/Kuldeep Yadav, Ravichandran Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah.
If Jadeja is fit, it will be Axar's batting against Kuldeep's bowling. Because of his strong secondary skills, Axar will be preferred ahead of Kuldeep.
If India persists in going with two seamers, Mohammed Siraj, who was rested for the second Test, will replace Mukesh Kumar, and Jadeja will come in place of Kuldeep.
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