Selecting India’s playing XI for the first Test against New Zealand in Kanpur should have been straightforward for Virat Kohli and Anil Kumble. But, with Ishant Sharma out of the Kanpur Test due to illness, the Indian think-tank does have a decision to make.
The Kane Williamson-led New Zealand are a dangerous opponent for the imperious Indians, who, because of the quality in their visitors’ ranks, are in for a litmus test over the course of the upcoming three-Test series. New Zealand have a decent batting line-up, though their 26-year-old skipper—who made a century on his Test debut against India in 2010, at the Motera—will have to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility.
And, in Ish Sodhi and Mitchell Santner, the Blackcaps have two quality spinners who picked up seven wickets between them and ran through a strong Indian batting line-up in the ICC World Twenty20 (WT20) 2016 Group 2 match at the Jamtha Stadium in Nagpur, albeit in a different format.
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Many of the batsmen in the 15-man Indian squad for the three-Test series v New Zealand, played in that WT20 2016 Group 2 opener. So, at least to start off with, Sodhi and Santner’s guile, which they fell to a little over six months ago, will be fresh in the memory of the likes of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan (if he plays), etc., who will, therefore, be wary of this spin duo.
My main focus will be on the New Zealand spinners during the upcoming three-Test series. Sodhi and Santner, who are likely to feature in all three Tests, will be under pressure to deliver because, even though we are only in September and the Indian home season is just beginning, the pitches are likely to be conducive to spin. And, if New Zealand want to conquer India—where they have never won a Test series in 10 attempts since 1955—their spinners will have to come good, although the batsmen will need to put up respectable totals on the board, as well.
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From India’s perspective, what should be their playing XI for the Kanpur Test, which begins on Thursday?
India’s Playing XI for Kanpur Test
Kohli’s India are a settled side and the fact that they are at home makes them even more of a formidable unit. However, their batsmen have struggled even against part-time spinners in recent years—the likes of Moeen Ali and Dean Elgar come to mind instantly—and in Santner and Sodhi, New Zealand have two spinners capable of exploiting any cockiness on the Indian batsmen’s part.
The Indian batsmen underestimated England’s Ali—which was evident from the kind of shots they played—and could not stop gifting him wickets during the 2014 tour of England: Ali ended up picking 19 wickets in eight innings.
Last year, when South Africa toured India for the Freedom Series, the likes of Elgar and Simon Harmer, who can very well be categorised as part-time spinners, picked up 15 wickets between them and ably supported South Africa’s lead spinner, Imran Tahir. Of course, the playing conditions were very much in their favour and the nature of pitches were such that the spinners from both sides did not really have to work hard for their wickets.
The Indian batsmen have to guard against complacency and arrogance when they face the New Zealand spinners.
Part Two of Cricfooty’s Review of India’s Test Squad v New Zealand
Surmising India’s playing combination for the Kanpur Test, I expect them to field six batsmen and four bowlers, with Wriddhiman Saha playing as the wicket-keeper: resulting in a 6-1-4 combination. In home conditions, five bowlers are not mandatory and the batting department is the one which needs to be reinforced.
Starting off with the bowlers who should ideally be in India’s playing XI for the Kanpur Test, Kohli has to play two seamers and two spinners to give balance to the Indian bowling attack. Ishant Sharma, who would have led the Indian attack in Kanpur, has incurred chikungunya on the eve of the first Test against New Zealand and consequently been ruled out. The lanky Delhi pacer has not been ruled out of the series yet, as Kumble said at the pre-match press conference that they “will be closely monitoring” Ishant’s health.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar—who proved that he was a bowler reborn on the fourth day of the third Test against West Indies, by picking up 5/14 in an eight-over spell which tilted the game in India’s favour—should play in place of Ishant and have Mohammed Shami, India’s most skilful bowler, to share the new ball with. Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja should complete the four bowling spots in the ideal Indian playing XI for the Kanpur Test.
There is not much to choose between R Jadeja and Amit Mishra, who has played in seven of Kohli’s 14 Tests as captain till date and played ahead of the Saurashtra left-arm spinner in the first couple of Tests against the West Indies, too. But, because R Jadeja is a lot more accurate than Mishra and bowls well in tandem with Ashwin, I would include him in India’s playing XI for the first Test against New Zealand.
Coming to the batting department, the selection should be quite straightforward for Kohli and Kumble. Lokesh Rahul has been in exceptional form and harnessed every opportunity he has had. Staggeringly, the Karnataka batsman’s exceptional form saw him play ahead of Murali Vijay, an established opener who, even after recovering from the thumb injury picked up in Antigua, could not find a place in India’s playing XI for the Gros Islet Test—the third of the four Tests against the West Indies—because KL Rahul had scored a daddy hundred (158) in Jamaica and the team management decided to stick with S Dhawan too. Vijay could still have been brought in for Cheteshwar Pujara but Kohli saw fit to stick with the opening combination of Rahul and S Dhawan, while Rohit replaced Pujara.
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Pujara, upon returning from the West Indies, where he scored 16 and 46 in the two innings he played, excelled in the recently-concluded Duleep Trophy, as he amassed 453 runs in three innings—with scores of 256 and 166—for India Blue, who went on to win the title. R Jadeja shone with the ball, picking up 10-171 in the Final.
Those batting performances and the likeliness of India playing six batsmen in Kanpur mean that Pujara and Rohit should feature in India’s playing XI. With KL Rahul being a certainty, S Dhawan will be the batsman to miss out on a place and I expect Vijay and KL Rahul to be the openers throughout India’s home Test series v New Zealand and possibly even beyond. Kanpur Test, which will be India’s 500th in history, is likely to be KL Rahul’s first Test on Indian soil.
Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane should slot in at No. 4 and No. 5, respectively.
So, the ideal Indian playing XI for the Kanpur Test would be: Kohli (C), Vijay, KL Rahul, Pujara, Rahane, Rohit, Saha, Ashwin, R Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar, and Shami.
The 6-1-4 combination will give India the coveted balance, though the hosts will still have to play well to beat New Zealand, who, as aforementioned, have the spinners capable of troubling the Indian batsmen. The Kanpur pitch has over the years been extremely on the slower side. But, with it hosting a Test match after seven long years, we do not quite know how the Green Park pitch will behave, especially over the course of five days.
Do you agree with the playing XI we think India should go in with? Or, if you disagree, tell us in the comments, which player(s) would you have in place of who.