As India ended another expectedly dominant home Test season in November, the discussion had immediately shifted to the Test series against New Zealand, which will begin on February 21. The hope was that this two-match series will bring with it a healthy dose of competition to the world’s best Test side.
Under Kohli, India’s growth as a Test nation that is capable of winning matches away from home was evident in flashes when they toured South Africa and England, while Australia was their crowning glory in their last overseas cycle. It culminated in India’s first-ever Test series win Down Under.
The singular strength that emerged from those tours for India was the rise of the pace bowling unit. To win matches away from home, Kohli needed his pacers to shine and led by the superb Jasprit Bumrah, they did exactly that. The consistent Ishant Sharma discovered that he too could be a wicket-taker while Mohammed Shami grew fitter and better with every match.
The batting during those away tours was iffy to say the least – the batsmen averaged 20.60 in South Africa, 25.23 in England and 34.69 in Australia (the last part thanks largely to the gritty Cheteshwar Pujara).
So going into the first Test against New Zealand, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the big questions center around the batting again.
The opening slot
Rohit Sharma’s injury deprived us of what could have been a fascinating battle – the world’s best white-ball opener against the red-ball. But it does open the door for something that could be equally fascinating.
Kohli all but confirmed that Prithvi Shaw will be Mayank Agarwal’s opening partner in Wellington.
And Shaw does not hold back. He goes for his shots, much like Virender Sehwag used to. But will that cost him against the moving ball? The bigger question, though, is will that cost India?
If Shaw gets away to a start, the runs could put additional pressure on the NZ bowling attack too. But at the same time, if they keep getting him early – it gives the Kiwis a boost and brings in Pujara early.
Shaw has been getting starts on the tour and he did bat as opener in the warm-up game too, doing well in the second innings.
While Shubman Gill seems to be technically tighter than Shaw and has all the shots in the book too, for now the ball is in the Mumbaikar’s court. Gill hasn’t played Test cricket yet and whether Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri trust him enough to hand out a debut remains to be seen.
An outside bet after his superb century in the first innings of the warm-up game was Hanuma Vihari. His immense powers of concentration are a great asset as is his ability to play out the new balls. But this is an option that Kohli will only consider if he plays five bowlers. And that, in turn, brings us to the next big question.
Vihari or five bowlers?
One might argue that given the possible bowler-friendly conditions in New Zealand, India shouldn’t need more than four bowlers. But over the last five years, across 21 matches, New Zealand’s batting average at home in the first innings stands at 41.28 and in the second innings, it increases to 48.04. The numbers indicate the pitches don’t deteriorate a lot and if anything batting has been easier in second innings. That in turn might mean that the bowlers need to bowl some long spells. If that is indeed the case, then Kohli may seriously be considering five bowlers.
The other angle to consider here is how fit Ishant Sharma is. He has been the workhorse of this bowling lineup in the recent past and gives Kohli the control from one end if he needs to attack from the other. He himself has developed the knack of picking up wickets too. His fitness and ability to bowl long spells so soon after what was thought to be a serious ankle injury is potentially a massive call for Kohli to take, as he indicated the Delhi pacer will likely feature.
If for some reason, Sharma is not in the final XI, Kohli has the headache of choosing between the exciting Navdeep Saini and experienced Umesh Yadav.
And if India play five bowlers, will they have space for Vihari in the line-up?
But then again, a batsman like Vihari is vital in case of a collapse. In the warm-up game, India lost the three openers (Mayank Agarwal 1, Shaw 0, Gill 0) early in the first innings. Rahane made 18 but it was Vihari who got together with Pujara to bail India out. The right-hander has scored at least fifty each time he has come out to bat in NZ – 51 and 100* against NZ A, 59 against NZ A, 101 against NZ XI.
This is a tough call to make as Vihari can bowl some spin as well – can he be the fifth bowler?
Pant vs Saha
The Indian team management doesn’t quite trust Rishabh Pant’s keeping skills against spin in the Indian subcontinent but his batting might be a great asset away from home.
In 11 Tests, Pant averages 44.35. To put things in perspective, that is higher than Ajinkya Rahane’s career average of 43.74. When the 22-year-old left-hander is able to rein in his natural instincts, his batting alone can win matches for India.
On the other hand, we have the 35-year-old Wriddhiman Saha. He is arguably one of the best wicketkeepers doing the rounds in world cricket. Indeed, if this was a decision purely based on glovework, we wouldn’t even be having this debate. But Saha averages 30.19 with the bat. He is solid but he isn’t Pant the batsman, just as Pant isn’t Saha the wicketkeeper.
The team management has kept Pant around for the entire NZ tour without giving him a game right up to the warm-up match where he batted higher in the batting order than Saha and did a fair bit of keeping as well. In his time at the nets, he was often seen practising his keeping skills.
Is India going to evolve a new stratagem where they will use Saha at home while Pant exclusively for away games?
Ashwin vs Jadeja
Jadeja’s record at home is almost as good as that of Ashwin but his bowling relies more on the wicket giving him some assistance than Ashwin. When Jadeja does get some help, he can be very difficult to get away as his bowling is built on accuracy.
Ashwin, though, has a certain charm to his bowling. The kind that would do an Erapalli Prasanna proud. He can beat the batsman in flight, he has more subtle variations to call upon and arguably has a better chance of taking a wicket in good batting conditions.
But Jadeja’s overall package is hard to match – accurate bowler, better batsman (these days) and brilliant fielder.
Or if Kohli does play five bowlers, he might even be tempted to play them both for their sheer quality.