The Indian test cricket team, led by Virat Kohli, will play 13 tests at home until March 2017. Let that number sink in. Comfort zone Central for a team that was, for a brief period before the fourth test in the West Indies, no. 1 in the rankings. Few would bet against them to now take back that spot from Pakistan, especially given their long and favourite home season coming up. However, things won’t be as easy as it looks. India will play five test matches against England, three against Australia, one against Bangladesh – all after they start things off this month with a 3-test series against New Zealand. The last time these two teams played a few years ago, India won 2-0, with R. Ashwin (again) the Man of the Series.
Let’s start off with their series against the Kiwis, a team led by Kane Williamson after the recent retirement of Brendon McCullum. Kanpur, Kolkata and Indore will be the venues.
In all likelihood, by the onset of summer next March, India will hope that this squad of 15 selected for the New Zealand series will remain their core group of players right until the end.
Only Stuart Binny and Shardul Thakur, both of whom didn’t play a test against West Indies, were dropped from the line-up to trim down the squad to 15. One can dispute little about this decision – Binny was thrammed in the sole T20 match against the West Indies, while Thakur is yet to play international cricket. So what we have now are easily 15 of the best players available to play against three of the best test teams going around. The only problem: selecting a right 11 for each match.
Musical chairs have been the norm, with KL Rahul and his phenomenal form disrupting a successful and stable opening combination of Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan at the top. All three cannot play in the same match, given that Kohli and co. and intent on giving Rohit Sharma a deep run in tests this time, either at 3 or 6. Being a lefty, Dhawan retains an advantage over Vijay, who has been the most consistent opener in the last few years. It will be unfair to drop Vijay, which means it could be KL Rahul and Vijay, depending on the approach Kohli wants to adopt.
Cheteshwar Pujara, who was dropped after the first two tests in the Caribbean, roared back to domestic form with a 166 and 256 in the Duleep Trophy game – making it difficult to ignore him for the one-down position in similar conditions. Kohli is known to favour Rohit over him, but Pujara’s experience in this format will come handy against some tricky pace bowlers. But what perhaps gladdens the fans’ hearts is that, after long, India’s bowling will be at full strength.
Three spinners, R. Ashwin, R. Jadeja and Amit Mishra have been selected, and they will play the key roles in all the tests against teams that are not known to deal competently with spin in Indian conditions. It doesn’t matter how well India bats, because if the spinners drop form, as they did against England in 2012, everything will be futile on tailor-made pitches that have given nightmares to Australian and South African teams recently. The pace attack of Mohammad Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav is perhaps the best that one could hope for in familiar conditions – with all of them having enough experience to lend ideal support to the spinners.
Kohli has tried, both, the 5-bowler and 7-batsman strategy in the recent series, and Ashwin’s batting form enabled him to have that flexibility. The bowler has 4 test centuries, which means that Rohit Sharma’s position at no. 6 may not always be a given. But Sandeep Patil, the chairman of selectors, wants him to have another go, and this could most likely be at no. 3, especially because the captain and best batsman in the world Kohli is a big fan of Rohit’s talent.
Best 11: Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha, R. Ashwin, R. Jadeja, M. Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma
Likely 11 for the first test: Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, W. Saha, R. Ashwin, R. Jadeja, M. Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma
New Zealand’s spin trio of Mitchell Santner, Ish Sodhi and Mark Craig won’t pose as many issues as the duo of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar did four years ago – that was the only recent home series that India lost in recent memory (2-1), after which they demolished Australia, New Zealand, West Indies and South Africa in quick succession. Pujara was one of the breakout stars of that losing England series, and he will want to be there when they start a long 5-match series against the Cook-led team this time. The English team is arguably the most competent in tests right now along with Pakistan, but their frailty on turning pitches has been exposed by Yasir Shah in the UAE series.
Whatever the case, to have Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli walking out as captains, both young batsmen finding their groove the last time these two teams played in this country, is a step forward for cricket.