The white ball formalities are done and dusted. Now, for India, it is time for the real business. A five-Test series in England. A massive challenge, perhaps the stiffest Test of Virat Kohli’s captaincy career so far.
On Wednesday, Indian selectors have announced an 18-member squad for the first three matches of the series. Seven specialist batsmen, two wicketkeepers, a genuine pace bowling all-rounder, three quality spinners and five pace bowlers as well as chances of adding one more after the first Test — if I was Kohli, I would have been spoilt for choices while picking an eleven from this contingent.
But does he have the best options to choose from? Perhaps not.
From outside this squad looks versatile and seems to have every base covered but if we dig deep, we will find some areas of concern for the team management.
Let’s have a look.
A rusty bowling line-up
During India’s last away series in South Africa, bowling was their most positive aspect to emerge. Led by some fantastic performances by the pacers like debutant Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami Kohli’s team managed to take all 60 wickets in six innings. Along with the trio, Ravichandran Ashwin played a good supporting role as did Hardik Pandya and Ishant Sharma. By the end of the series, it suddenly looked that with the red ball, the Indian seam attack can nullify any batting line-up in any condition.
But going into England the more or less the same line-up is looking a bit rusty.
For starters, Shami, who was India’s leading wicket-taker in South Africa has a had forgettable time both on off the field since that tour. Primarily due to personal issues and an unfortunate accident, he had an average outing in the IPL. Later the pacer missed the Afghanistan Test because of fitness concerns and lack of form. And now he has been picked for the England-bound squad only after clearing the mandatory Yo-Yo Test.
Hence, he is going to England with no match practice behind him. And we all know Shami is a rhythm bowler.
Bumrah, India’s other trusted weapon with the ball, has recovered from a broken thumb, but will only be available after the third Test, that too depending on his fitness.
Like Bumrah, a call on Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s inclusion in the Test squad will be taken after he is assessed by the BCCI medical team after the third Test. The pacer aggravated a lower back condition during the third ODI in Leeds. He hasn’t even been named in the squad and now coming back home. If he misses out, it will be a massive blow to India’s chances as on seaming English conditions he would have been handy with the Duke ball.
In all likelihood Shami, Ishant and Umesh Yadav will be the first-choice seam attack for India in the first Test at Edgbaston. Certainly, in ideal circumstances, this is not exactly the attack which Kohli would have picked at the start of this high-profile series.
However, with the inclusion of Kuldeep Yadav, the spin department looks far more equipped than what we had seen in South Africa. Along with the tried and tested pair of Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep’s left-arm wrist-spin is a valued inclusion. Even, the former Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly has already voiced in favour of playing two spinners — Ashwin and Kuldeep — in the first Test. Well, in the absence of the best seam bowling attack, it will indeed be a gamble worth taking.
Over dependency on Kohli in the batting department
Following the debacle in South Africa during the Test series, it is crystal clear that overseas this Indian batting line-up depends heavily on its skipper’s willow. Yes, there are experienced pros like Ajinkya Rahane, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara and Shikhar Dhawan in this squad. But, the equation is simple, if India want to win the series, Kohli has to get those big hundreds and other can play supporting roles.
However, England is one country, where the Kohli had struggled in the past in the red-ball format. So, this time there will be a significant amount of performance pressure on him and this can always be a double-edged sword.
Meanwhile, one positive aspect of this chosen batting line-up is – prior to the start of the Test series almost all the batsmen will get enough time in the middle to acclimatise against the Duke ball.
The likes of Rahane, Murali Vijay, Rishabh Pant and Karun Nair are currently part of the India A team, playing against England Lions in a four-day game. Earlier, in this ongoing ‘A’ tour, Nair and Pant had done well in the First-Class matches against West Indies A. While Nair came up with knocks of 93 and 55 in two of his four innings, Pant struck a match-winning, unbeaten 67 in a chase of 321 against the Caribbean side in Taunton.
Along with these ‘A’ fixtures the Indians will also feature in a three-day practice game against Essex at Chelmsford in which all the batsmen are expected to get some time in the middle. Also, Pujara has been playing for Yorkshire in county cricket. Though so far he has had a poor season with the bat, going into the Test series his experience of batting against the Duke ball will be crucial for the visitors.
Unavailability of the best wicketkeeper
On this tour, at least in the first three matches, India won’t have the services of their first-choice Test skipper Wriddhiman Saha, who failed to recover from his thumb injury which he sustained during the Indian Premier League. His place is likely to be taken by Dinesh Karthik, who recently featured in the Afghanistan Test.
The inclusion of an experienced batsman like Karthik will certainly boost the batting, but Saha will definitely be missed behind the stumps. On those seaming wickets one needs a gloveman, who has proper technique and confidence in his keeping. But, Karthik is known more for his batting than glove work and so is Pant, the other keeper-batsman in the squad.
This high-profile series starts on August 1 at Edgbaston, followed by Tests at Lord’s from August 9, at Nottingham from August 19, at Southampton from August 30 and finally The Oval Test from September 7.
India squad for first three Tests:
Virat Kohli (C), Ajinkya Rahane (VC), Dinesh Karthik (WK), Rishabh Pant (WK), Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Karun Nair, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Hardik Pandya, Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Shardul Thakur.