With the first Test against New Zealand set to begin in Kanpur on Thursday, India return to red-ball cricket after a hectic couple of months for their players in the Twenty20 format.

It started with the second half of IPL 2021, which was followed by the T20 World Cup, and finally a quick T20I series against the Kiwis. This has left India with a relatively inexperienced squad for the first Test against New Zealand, especially when it comes to the batting department.

Captain Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant are among those who are missing (with Kohli returning for the second Test), while the in-form KL Rahul has been sidelined from the two-match series due to injury.

For stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane, though, having a new-look squad at his disposal isn’t a concern. Speaking on the eve of the opening Test, he said it’s a good opportunity for youngsters to grab opportunities.

“Rahul bhai (coach Dravid) is backing each and every individual... this team is all about playing for one another,” said Rahane.

While the likes of Mayank Agarwal, Shubman Gill, Shreyas Iyer, who will be making his Test debut in Kanpur, will indeed be hungry to make a mark, the two Tests against New Zealand aren’t an opportunity for them alone.

Skipper Rahane can be added to this list too.

The 33-year-old’s form with the bat this year has been a constant cause for debates. After all, in his last 11 Tests, he has scored 372 runs at an average of 19.57. He had an exceptional 2019, where he averaged 71.33, and followed that up with a respectable average of 38.85 in 2020.

However, his numbers this year, along with his abundantly evident struggles at the crease, aren’t what you expect from a player with over a decade’s worth of experience in international cricket.

When Rahane is confident, in the zone, he’s a match-winner in the middle order. There’s no doubt about that. We saw what he’s capable of in his unforgettable innings of 112 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last December.

But since then, he has scored just two half-centuries in 20 innings. And add to that the indifferent form of Kohli and the struggles of Cheteshwar Pujara, it left what seemed like a gaping hole in India’s middle order.

Again, when it comes to Rahane, it isn’t just the numbers that have been a concern. It is the tentativeness at the crease, the indecision, the half-hearted strokes.

There was, however, a familiar defiance in Rahane’s words in the pre-match press conference on Wednesday.

Here’s what he had to say:

“I am not concerned about my form.

“My job is to contribute as much as possible for my team. Contribution doesn’t mean that you need to score 100 in each game. Scores of 30, 40, 50 per innings are also important contributions.

“I am not too bothered about what’s going to happen in the future. Whatever has to happen in future will happen and I have to stay in the moment, to give my best in that particular moment.

“Rahul bhai told us to back our strengths and keep it very simple. Not to bother too much about it and for me and Pujara, we know our game plans and we have been playing since so many years. So it’s all about keeping it simple and backing ourselves and we are not worried too much.”

— Quotes via PTI

Perhaps Rahane’s approach heading into the Kanpur Test cannot be faulted. We’ve often heard even in-form players talk about remaining in the moment, being confident, and focusing on the preparation.

Having said that, though, it is also undeniable that the stakes are high for Rahane. At least, they must be.

India are going in with an inexperienced batting order. And with a proven middle order performer like Hanuma Vihari left waiting in the wings, rather dubiously made to be a part of the India A squad at the last minute, the onus is on Rahane to score runs. A lot of them. He got four half-centuries in five innings in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy recently and maybe can carry forward that confidence. Different formats, but when a batter is in touch, they typically make it count.

This home Test series against New Zealand brings with it an opportunity for youngsters to make a move in the longest format, and under the guidance of the man who he was compared to a long time ago in Dravid, the same goes for Rahane too.

The first Test between India and New Zealand begins at 9.30 am IST on Thursday in Kanpur.

Here are the squads of both teams:

India: Ajinkya Rahane (c), Mayank Agarwal, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Axar Patel, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Siraj, Jayant Yadav, Srikar Bharat (wk), Prasidh Krishna.

New Zealand: Kane Williamson (c), Tom Latham (wk), Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, Tom Blundell (wk), Will Young, Glenn Phillips (wk), Daryl Mitchell, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner, Kyle Jamieson, William Sommerville, Ajaz Patel, Mitchell Santner, Rachin Ravindra.