Opportunity for world no.1 Test team to show their mettle!
For Kohli’s men, this is the starting point of a long winding journey, with Lord’s in 2021 the ultimate destination, in the final of the first-ever World Test Championship.
Through the last Test schedule faced by team India, coach Ravi Shastri harped on one statement. First in South Africa, then in England, and later in Australia, he spoke about how this squad in Test whites was the best ever to be assembled from this country.
The results didn’t support his words. India lost 2-1 in South Africa and then 4-1 in England. What made matters worse was the simple fact that Virat Kohli’s side, with a little more strategic nous and discipline, should have won both those series. When they did right those wrongs, and learnt from mistakes, India won in Australia albeit in the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner.
A simple conclusion emanated through that rigorous yearlong overseas Test series’ schedule. This isn’t the best Indian Test side, yet. Even so, it certainly does have all the potential to become one. Driven by a passionate leader, possessing a few brilliant batsmen, an all-weather spin attack, and boasting arguably the best Indian pace attack ever, the drawing board has all parts ticked off. It is now merely about things coming together and adding up.
On paper, it shouldn’t be tough. India’s white-ball sides are again in rebuild, and they managed to triumph in the recent ODI/T20 series with ease. By that marker, the Tests should be a plain affair. However, the Indian team management is known to create headaches of its own making. Not to mention, West Indies did beat England at home earlier this year.
The headaches for India start in the batting line-up. KL Rahul was dropped mid-series in Australia for a lack of runs. Since then, his form has changed and it seems he will be back opening with Mayank Agarwal. What of makeshift opener at Melbourne, Hanuma Vihari, then?
He didn’t make the cut when Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma and Hardik Pandya were all available. The latter isn’t available, but Kohli usually picks a five-man bowling attack on overseas tours. It means Ravindra Jadeja comes into the picture as the all-rounder, unless R Ashwin picks up that tab with Kuldeep Yadav as the main spinner and three pacers alongside. Again though, what of Vihari?
In his short Test career thus far, Vihari has enjoyed decent outings in both England and Australia, tougher conditions than in West Indies. Perhaps it still doesn’t get him ahead of a senior batsman like Rahane, or a swashbuckling talent like Rohit Sharma, in whom the team management is firmly invested. For Vihari to make the playing eleven on Thursday would be akin to a biblical miracle.
Those two names, Rahane and Rohit, provide the second angle of this batting headache. If Kohli goes in with a five-bowler attack, then he cannot fit in both these batsmen. He would then have to make a call – Rahane, who has not been in great confidence or touch even in his county stint, or Rohit, who has been playing regular white-ball cricket albeit his Test form is far from desirable.
Kohli had made this tough call back in South Africa that didn’t reap any dividends, and only ended up splitting opinion. He is unlikely to make another such tough call, especially at the start of a new, long season, wherein the vice-captain’s confidence might spiral down to new depths. Is it a risk worth pondering over?
To satiate his risk-taking capacity, Kohli might flip the coin in favour of Rishabh Pant, ahead of Wriddhiman Saha who returns to the Test fold after January 2018. The standing rule in this Indian dressing room is that a player coming back from long-term injury walks back into the playing eleven. Can they ignore Pant, however, after backing him to great lengths?
Not to mention, his record-breaking outings in both England and Australia wherein he became the first Indian keeper-batsman to score hundreds. Saha is, hands-down, the better keeping option between the two. But the Indian eleven doesn’t have enough open spots to play both, with Pant taking the field solely as batsman particularly at a time when he hasn’t really excelled with the bat in white-ball cricket recently. This decision, taken either way, is going to define India’s season in more ways than one.
Ashwin, Jadeja and Kuldeep will be fighting for the two slots, as it is increasingly unlikely that India will opt for three spinners in an overseas Test. It brings into play India’s pace attack – out of Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, whom do you leave out? Perhaps Umesh, although for not fault of his except this is the golden age of Indian fast bowling, and that he is unlucky to be in the same squad as three other brilliant pacers.
That word ‘pace’ gains additional context here. West Indies turned back the years through green and quick pitches against England earlier in the year as Kemar Roach ran through their batting line-up. So much so, only one English batsman managed to score a hundred in that Test series, and perhaps it is in this formula that the hosts will find their best weapon to stop India.
Quick and green pitches will even the scales in terms of batting, albeit bring in India’s fiery pace attack into the equation a bit more. But ask West Indies’ skipper Jason Holder for his preference – allow India to score 600 and then chase the game, or bowl them out for 250-300 and make a fist of things on a lively pitch? Any captain worth his salt knows what he would want in this situation.
At the time of writing, a dry-looking pitch with odd patches of grass had been laid out for the first Test in Antigua. For West Indies then, it is already a fight for survival against a mighty Indian line-up, which is only partially rusty. For Kohli’s men, this is the starting point of a long winding journey, with Lord’s in 2021 the ultimate destination, in the final of the first-ever World Test Championship. Anything less, and the Kohli-Shastri will have failed in this stint.