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Wicketkeeper, bowling all-rounder and third seamer form India’s selection quandaries

Last updated on 05 Jun 2023 | 03:17 PM
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Wicketkeeper, bowling all-rounder and third seamer form India’s selection quandaries

Eight players pick themselves leaving India with a headache to fill the other three spots

Here we go again.

India have an important assignment lined up. The World Test Championship final. It is more significant since this is India’s second attempt at the trophy. They lost in 2021. This time, it is Australia. They have two batters in the top five Test batters’ rankings. The opposition skipper, Pat Cummins, is the number three ranked Test bowler at present. The challenge is stiff for India. 

They need to get a number of things right. But first things first, it is vital to field the right XI. The top six picks itself with Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja manning the batting. Mohammad Shami and Mohammed Siraj are certain as the two prime pacers. That leaves India with a headache between three spots - the wicketkeeper, the all-rounder at number eight and the third seamer. Axar Patel is the only player in the squad with no realistic chance of playing this fixture. 

In this space, we analyze the merits and demerits of each candidate for those spots. 

Wicketkeeper - Bharat or Kishan?

Another series without Rishabh Pant and another time where we're not sure who should be keeping. The question becomes more relevant in a one-off Test overseas. Both of India’s options - KS Bharat and Ishan Kishan - are inexperienced at the Test level, let alone overseas cricket.

There is little to separate between the two in terms of their overall first-class record. Bharat averages 37.27 in his first-class career, while Kishan is at 38.76. Among the two, only Bharat has played a red-ball game in England, representing India A against West Indies A, back in 2018. That is Bharat’s only first-class fixture in England, while Kishan has none. Bharat scored 2 and 33* in that game. 

On pecking order alone, Bharat should make the cut. He has been with the Indian squad for the entirety of the WTC cycle and has featured in four Test matches. However, Kishan is a more like-for-like replacement for Pant - an attacking left-handed batter. India handed an unforeseen debut to Suryakumar Yadav during the home Test series against Australia earlier this year. It reflected they do want an attacking option somewhere in the middle-order. The same elevates Kishan’s chances of being selected over Bharat. 

The wicketkeeping credentials will also decide their fortunes. The ball wobbles in England, which underlines the demand for a more specialist keeper. Moreover, if India play two spinners, Bharat, despite making a few errors in the home series against Australia, is likely to garner more trust than Kishan.

India have a few tricky decisions to make, and the next one will be subject to the conditions on offer and other selections. 

Bowling all-rounder - Ashwin or Shardul? 

It has been a while since Ravichandran Ashwin was part of an overseas Test with Ravindra Jadeja in the XI. Jadeja’s batting resurgence has kept Ashwin on the bench in Tests outside the Indian subcontinent. 

Ashwin was on the bench throughout the five-match Test series in England. While many believed a match-winner like him should have played all the Tests, there was no place for an additional spinner. 

Things are quite different with the final at the Oval. It is one of the better venues for the spinners. Over the last five Tests played at this ground, spinners have picked 22.5% of the wickets. It may seem low but is still a decent figure in England. In the second innings, it increases to 29.6%. 

Moreover, Ashwin holds an impressive record versus Australia. Not to forget his expertise against left-handers. Australia are likely to have four left-handed batters in their top seven. If the pitch breaks towards the second innings, the off-spinner has a great chance to disrupt the opposition batters. 

Ashwin is competing with Shardul Thakur for the bowling all-rounder’s spot at number eight. 

Thakur’s bowling credentials have taken a hit. While that is majorly due to white-ball cricket, Thakur might well be judged by his last outing in England. The right-arm seamer was carted around the park as he returned figures of 1/113 in 18 overs in the Edgbaston Test last year. He lacked both attacking and defensive attributes in his bowling. 

Overall, the management will consider the conditions before picking their number eight. The forecast, at the time of writing this, suggests less than 10% chance of rain on the first three days. On the last two days, it stands at 60%. 

Who will be the third seamer? 

The third seamer’s tussle has a shoot-out between Umesh Yadav and Jaydev Unadkat. 

Umesh has been India’s reserve pacer for a long time. In Test cricket, he has done well whenever the opportunity has arrived. In his last Test in England - at the Oval itself in 2021 - Umesh picked 6/136, including the prized wickets of Joe Root and Dawid Malan. The seamer has everything for the Oval surface - pace, bounce, reverse swing. 

But all of that is fruitful when the bowler is at peak fitness. Umesh suffered a hamstring injury in the second half of the IPL. Prior to that, he managed only one wicket in eight games for Kolkata Knight Riders. In his last Test, versus Australia in Ahmedabad, he had figures of 0/126 in 30 overs. Clearly, he is not at his best. 

Also, the 35-year-old can be wayward at times with his line and lengths. Indian pacers have an economy of 3.55 in SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) since 2022. It is the third-worst among all pace attacks in these countries. 

Jaydev Unadkat, on the other hand, isn’t an outright wicket-taking option. To make his case, Unadkat offers the left-arm seam bowling option and can cease the flow of runs. 

Like Umesh, he is also coming from an injury and a forgettable IPL season. If the management anticipates drier conditions at the Oval, Unadkat’s chances of playing the final will be bright alongside Ashwin. A lot will depend on how Umesh and Unadkat fare in the practice sessions.

There are little chances of Thakur making the cut as the third seamer. If that happens, it will reflect a defensive approach to deepen the batting line-up rather than adding a penetrative bowling option. 

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