All eyes are on Ajinkya Rahane as India’s World Test Championship campaign gets underway in Antigua on Thursday against West Indies.
Indeed, there will be plenty of interest as the world’s best Test side returns to action in the longest format after a lengthy gap since the famous triumph Down Under. If Virat Kohli’s enthusiasm for the new tournament format for Test cricket is even half present in the rest of his team, they will be raring to go after an overdose of white-ball cricket.
But one person who might be a fair bit nervous is Kohli’s deputy Rahane. In fact, it should come as no surprise if Kohli indeed looks past his vice-captain to solidify his middle-order. Rohit Sharma has been among the runs and Hanuma Vihari has impressed with form and technique, oozing confidence at the crease during the A team’s earlier tour of the Caribbean as well as the warm-up match.
India’s pace trio of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami and Ishant Sharma are back, and should be automatic selections. There are interesting options for Kohli to work with in the spin department too. Ravichandran Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav will be fighting it but depending on conditions, Ravindra Jadeja will also be an option.
At the top of the order, good mates KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal have a golden opportunity to cement their places in the side. Agarwal enjoyed a terrific start to his career and can only get better from here. Rahul got runs under his belt in World Cup but had endured a horrendous Australia tour. Having been in the Indian setup for a little over four years, it’s time for Rahul to establish himself as a mainstay at the top. Especially with India carrying no other openers for Tests.
India’s Test No 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, despite not having a lot of matches under his belt in recent months, got into the groove with a trademark obdurate hundred in the warm-up game.
As for the wicketkeeper’s slot, Rishabh Pant, despite blowing hot and cold, should get the nod ahead of the seasoned Wriddhiman Saha. Pant, like Vihari and Agarwal, took to the whites like a duck to water. He became the first Indian keeper to score hundreds in England and Australia in the longest format.
The limited-overs series saw Pant only show glimpses of his destructive batting arsenal. Here’s another chance for him to firmly cement a place in the side and prove his doubters wrong. With age on his side, he is a punt worth taking.
But on to the bigger talking points...
Rahane – in or out?
Kohli keeps reminding everyone that Rahane is still India’s Test mainstay along with Pujara but, these days, it feels like that is lip service. Between 2014-’17, the Mumbai batsman scored heavily away from home, prevailing in the most daunting of cauldrons when his teammates struggled. The last couple of years, though, has seen his form slide. Rahane’s last hundred came in August 2017. Since then, he has struggled with the next 17 Tests yielding just 696 runs at a poor average of 24.85.
Since January 2018, he has made 644 runs at a slightly improved 30.66 in 12 matches. Some would point that it is then, at the South Africa series at the start of 2018, where he was dropped for Rohit Sharma, that the decline became serious for the Mumbaikar.
Before leaving for West Indies, Kohli jumped at his teammate’s defence. The India captain had said: “Even in South Africa we played Rohit because of his batting against Sri Lanka and in the ODI format. So that was the reason why we chose him over Jinx [Ajinkya Rahane].
“Jinx has been solid player for us through and through. That’s always been our communication. He is one of the most sorted guys. Really, really composed. He reads the game well also. Priceless fielder. We have all seen the impact he can create in Test cricket with is slip catching and everything.”
While is encouraging to get a vote of confidence from the skipper through this lean patch, the form-meter points towards him missing out. Vihari’s last four first class scores in West Indies read: 55, 118*, 37*, 64. It would be harsh if he misses out on a place in the side. In Australia and England, the Andhra batsman’s off-spin bowling was used by Kohli. Rahane did manage to get a patient fifty in the warm-up match against West Indies A, a feat matched by Rohit Sharma too. The ODI vice-captain, meanwhile, might offer Kohli a more exciting option in the middle order.
The possible combinations for the middle-order are many, and it would be fascinating to see who Kohli opts for.
It was not long ago that coach Ravi Shastri announced that wrist-spinner Kuldeep Yadav would be his go-to man across formats. Ravichandran Ashwin, India’s long-standing Test No 1, came back with a bang recently. Runs, five-fors, ten-fors...the off-spinner was on a roll for English county Nottinghamshire.
In the meantime, Kuldeep Yadav’s form has also dipped slightly since the build-up to the World Cup.
And Ashwin has good memories from Antigua the last time India played a Test there. Three years ago, the 32-year-old joined a rare group of cricketers to pick up a seven-wicket haul and score a hundred in the same game. Keeping Ashwin’s formidable record against West Indies in mind, he should get the nod ahead of Kuldeep Yadav, who remains a work in progress in Tests. Should, but will he?
If one were to look for hints in the warm-up match, Ashwin did not bowl in the first innings while Kuldeep was unused in the shorter second innings. Jadeja, however, rolled his arm over in both essays.
Picking Jadeja and instead of a specialist middle-order batsman remains an option too but that is a gamble that can backfire. India’s biggest takeaway from overseas tours of 2018-’19 was that the Bumrah-Ishant-Shami axis have regularly masterminded batting collapses. With such a potent pace attack, a fifth bowler is a wasted resource with India going for the four-bowler strategy in Australia.
With 120 Championship points up for grabs, anything less than a series win will be a major blow to Kohli’s men. India haven’t played a Test match in nearly eight months so rustiness is something they have to watch out for.
It will be foolish to doubt the challenge Windies can pose as well. Jason Holder’s remarkable show helped his side punish a sloppy England side earlier this year. Despite being comfortably second best in the limited-overs series, there is no reason why the West Indies renew their focus, now that there is a lot riding on each and every Test over the next couple of years.
India’s journey to establishing themselves as the best in Tests starts with the focus, yet again, on the team combinations. As always, don’t rule out Kohli and Shastri from pulling off a surprise.