India have played four One-Day Internationals at the Holkar Cricket Stadium in Indore. They have won all four games. As the city gets ready to host its first-ever Test, the Virat Kohli-led side will look to continue this unbeaten streak and get a 3-0 win in their first rubber of the long home season.
This inaugural five-day match in Indore will also kick off a cycle wherein we will get more new Test centres. Rajkot and Visakhapatnam will follow suit in the England series, while Dharamsala, Ranchi and Pune will join this list when Australia tour here next year.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India has hedged its bets on this new match allocation policy. With the chance of a day-night Test looking remote this season, the board has moved towards these tier-two cities and towns to attract more fans to the stadiums. The logic is simple: These centres do not get international cricket regularly, nor do they have Indian Premier League franchises playing there too often.
Bringing Tests here is a safe bet to showcase filled-up stadiums to the world, unlike the empty vastness at Eden Gardens. Thirty thousand people in Kolkata can only fill half of that ground, while Indore is expected to be choc-a-bloc if that many people come in.
Meanwhile, there are a couple of statistics at stake here. India are unbeaten in their last 12 Tests under Kohli’s leadership, and he is placed fourth behind Sunil Gavaskar (18), Kapil Dev (17) and Mohammad Azharuddin (14) in garnering an unbeaten run in their respective reigns.
Another unbeaten result here would mean that India also gets to maintain its No. 1 spot in the International Cricket Council Test rankings. Yes, a win or a draw will be sufficient to keep them ahead of Pakistan, irrespective of the result of their Test series against West Indies.
The return of Gambhir and Williamson
New Zealand looked lost without Kane Williamson in Kolkata. Sure, they managed to affect a couple of collapses for India there, but it was more down to a juicy pitch suited to their fast bowlers. Matt Henry and Trent Boult showed the inherent weakness among the Indian batsmen against quality pace. But they will not get a second chance to that effect – expect a dry wicket in Indore, much like Kanpur.
The most positive aspect for their batting line-up in Kolkata was some semblance of form for the openers, who put up a 50-stand in the second innings. After that, they simply missed someone who could withstand the onslaught of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, and hold the middle order together. Ross Taylor is not that man, not when he has the additional burden of captaincy. The expected return of their captain and best batsman, then, will be a big boost for the Kiwis.
For India too, a senior batsman will return to the international fold. It was in 2014 last when Gautam Gambhir played for India, and while his return in England did not yield the desired results (25 runs in four innings), he can hopefully do better on home soil.
By including Karun Nair in the squad for this third Test, and not a regular opener to replace the injured Shikhar Dhawan, the team management has made it clear that Gambhir will play this match. It is a strange selection though, for the new selection panel has steered away from the previous committee’s plan of looking ahead almost at all times.
And yet, the writing might already be on the wall for Gambhir. There is still some time to go before the Test squad for England is announced. But with the Ranji Trophy going on simultaneously, there can expectedly be a few names to make their mark for the remaining 10 Tests this season. The Delhi southpaw can ill-afford a failure on his return.
Every series brings its own set of challenges, vis-à-vis conditions, opponents, strategies, etc. When one follows another and gives way to an extensive home season, such as this one, player management becomes an integral part of this list.
At this juncture in time, India have a good first-choice XI, and they also boast of a bench that is raring to go. And yet there is certain fragility about them that is slowly setting in. Ishant Sharma is down with chikungunya, KL Rahul has pulled his hamstring, Shikhar Dhawan got hit and fractured his thumb, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar now has a back strain.
This list is from two Tests alone, with another eleven pending, plus a couple of limited-overs’ series thrown in for good measure. At the time of writing, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami have been rested from the first three ODIs against New Zealand, a move in the correct direction.
For, keeping this set of players injury-free so that India can achieve some consistency in their play across formats is the greatest challenge facing the team management and the selectors at the moment.