While India were forced to turn to their net bowlers for the Brisbane Test because they simply didn’t have enough players left in the original squad, they won’t have to worry about options when they sit down to pick the playing XI for the first Test against England at Chennai. In fact, it will be the opposite.
The Indian team had their first of the three available practice sessions on Tuesday and going by the traditional Chepauk wicket that normally assists spinners, India might go with two pacers and three spinners for the February 5-9 opener.
“The pitch is a typical Chepauk wicket. No English feel or anything. In this humidity, you need to have grass on the wicket so that it doesn’t break up that easily. This wicket will help spinners as it always has been the case,” a BCCI official told PTI.
But there are still some big decisions to be made regarding the playing XI and none of them are going to be easy:
The wicketkeeper’s slot
Rishabh Pant, the hero of the Brisbane Test, might find himself warming the bench when India take on England in the first Test at Chennai. It might seem like a harsh decision to some but given how much spinners are going to be in operation during the series against England, India might go with Wriddhiman Saha as their keeper.
Saha is clearly the better keeper, especially against spin and Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri will have more confidence in their batsmen at home. They may not need another batsman to shore up the batting lower down the order which means they will believe they can do without Pant.
Given that a place in the ICC Test Championship final is at stake, India won’t want to mess too much with a plan that has worked so well at home. They wouldn’t want to risk Pant dropping Joe Root or any other top England batsman. Saha doesn’t catch everything either but the law of averages shows that he drops fewer and that will inspire greater confidence.
A CricViz Analyst said during the third Test against Australia that Pant’s catch success percentage in Tests is 93% against pace and 56% against spin.
The temptation to pick Pant, though, will always be there. His ability to turn a match on its head in a single session is rare. If the side does lose a few early wickets, his presence in the batting order can inspire great confidence but at home, Saha has the edge for now. Either way, it will not be an easy decision to make and could ironically come down to not the keeping quality but how confident India are in their batting line-up.
Two or three pacers?
England’s batsmen play pace far better than they play spin and that, along with the pitch, will have a huge bearing on whether India will play two or three pacers in the first Test. As skipper, Ajinkya Rahane chose to play five bowlers in Australia but will they feel the need to do the same in India too?
If Hardik Pandya had been fit enough to bowl, it might have been an easier decision to make. But in this case, with Jasprit Bumrah fit again, the choice between the other slot is a direct competition between Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Siraj.
Over the last two years, Ishant Sharma has been brilliant for India but he hasn’t played any red-ball cricket of late and his fitness will be a crucial factor. He played four Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy matches recently and bowled a total of 14.1 overs.
If bowling coach Bharat Arun is satisfied with Ishant’s net sessions, then the Delhi pacer could be the one to get the nod. If not, India have a confident Siraj ready to step up.
Three seamers might be pushing it in India, even though Kohli has resorted to that combination in the recent past at home. If it’s a turning track, then two should be good enough to get the job done.
With Ravindra Jadeja ruled out, it will be a chance for Kuldeep Yadav to finally get some game time. Washington Sundar had the edge in Australia where the team wanted the spinner to play a holding role and his batting was a bonus but back in India, Kuldeep’s guile and variations should be a huge plus. Kohli and Co may also decide to go with Axar Patel, the closest to a like-for-like replacement for Jadeja.
Axar, who is a good batsman too, will bring more to the table than Kuldeep in terms of all-round abilities. Sri Lankan spinner Lasith Embuldeniya’s performance in the recent series against England will be a boost for Axar.
The team management has spoken about Kuldeep’s talent quite glowingly lately and this would be the best opportunity to bring him back in the mix.
If India want to play five bowlers, there might be the option to play both Kuldeep and Axar in addition to Ashwin Ravichandran but that decision will only be taken depending on the kind of pitch they will be playing on.
Washington did nothing wrong in Brisbane but he will have an outside chance here. The others have performed in red-ball cricket for a while and they probably will get their chance first. Also, two off-spinners (even though they bowl differently) might be a bit too much when more variation is available in the squad.
So put on your selector hat and tell us what XI Kohli and India should pick for the first Test? Scroll.in’s cricket writers have made their choices here:
The Field’s choice of playing XIs:
Ashish Magotra’s XI: Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha, Axar Patel, R Ashwin, Kuldeep Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah
Aditya Chaturvedi’s XI: Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha, R Ashwin, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma
Vinayakk Mohanarangan’s XI: Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant, Axar Patel, R Ashwin, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj
(With PTI inputs)