Anil Kumble, speaking at a press conference a couple of days before the start of the first Test between India and England, was coy on the playing XI India might field at the Saurashtra Cricket Association (SCA) Stadium in Rajkot. About the possibility of Hardik Pandya and/or Karun Nair making their Test debuts, Kumble said: “Everyone is available for selection. With Hardik being part of the squad, we have more options.”
Team India’s coach, who has—during his four-and-a-half-month stint—overseen India win a couple of Test series and an ODI series, also said that India were unsure about how the pitch might play, with the Test match beginning tomorrow being the first to be played at this venue. And, what he has said makes perfect sense, given that the nature of a pitch for ODIs and T20Is is, usually, vastly different from the one which a curator has to prepare for a five-day match.
Looking ahead to the Rajkot Test, we assess who among Karun Nair and Hardik Pandya should be included in India’s playing XI. The chances of both of them making their Test debuts for India, are really slim, and let us see why, as well.
Karun Nair or Hardik Pandya: Who Should Play the Rajkot Test
In terms of experience at the international level, Pandya trumps Nair by the number of ODIs and T20Is he has played: the Karnataka batsman has played just a couple of ODIs for India, which came against Zimbabwe earlier this year, while the Baroda all-rounder played in each one of India’s 16 T20Is until the Men in Blue’s ouster at the semi-final stage of the ICC World Twenty20 (WT20) 2016 and in the recently-concluded ODI series against New Zealand, Pandya played in four of the five ODIs.
At the First-Class (FC) level, however, the numbers are drastically different: Karun Nair has played more FC matches (37) and scored close to 3000 runs (2845, to be precise), compared to Pandya, who has played just 16 FC matches and has yet to make an impression. Through his consistency with the bat, vindicated by his impressive batting average of 52.68, Nair has established himself as Karnataka’s No. 4 batsman.
Now, Nair and Pandya cannot make their Test debuts together because 10 of India’s playing XI pick themselves. Ishant Sharma, who has returned to the Indian squad for the first couple of Tests against England after recovering from chikungunya, is likely to replace Umesh Yadav, who played in the Indore Test against the Blackcaps. Ishant, because he is the spearhead of this Indian bowling attack, becomes an automatic choice whenever he is fit to play.
With Ishant potentially returning to India’s playing XI as well, only one spot is vacant for either Karun Nair or Hardik Pandya to fill.
Rohit Sharma suffered a right quadriceps injury while batting in the Visakhapatnam ODI, the decider of the five-ODI series between India and New Zealand last month. That injury has proved to be a lot serious than was initially thought and the Mumbai batsman is now expected to miss 10-12 weeks of cricketing action. Rohit is now certain to miss all five Tests against England and his spot (No. 6) is the only one which has to be filled.
Karun Nair becomes the straightforward replacement for Rohit because he is a pure batsman and India, in home conditions, have to beef up their batting. The Karnataka batsman has been in fine fettle with the bat as well, striking three half-centuries (74, 54* and 53) and a mammoth century (145) in his last four innings for his state. Basically, Nair has yet to fail with the bat in the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy season!
In many ways, Hardik Pandya’s inclusion in the Indian squad for the England Tests is eccentric. Yuvraj Singh is leading the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy scoring charts with 672 runs in just eight innings and will have been a more pertinent replacement for Rohit. Having been a magnificent middle-order batsman for India across all formats, Yuvraj will probably have slotted in seamlessly, at No. 6, even though he is not an accomplished player of good spin bowling.
The reason I say Pandya’s inclusion is eccentric is because you do not need a third seamer in Indian conditions and on Indian pitches, that is even if you spot grass on the playing surface on the first morning of a Test match. In India, the SG Test ball very rarely swings in the air and the sunny weather conditions in India ensure that whatever little moisture the pitch has, dries up really quickly. Invariably, therefore, for a captain, his spinners become the go-to bowlers, while the regular pacers are used in short spells when the spinners need a breather.
Therefore, Pandya, who has yet to make an impression at the FC level either with the bat or with the ball, does not have the repertoire yet or the ideal setting in which to thrive, as far as Test matches in India are concerned. What is also worth mentioning is that the current Indian Test side are already blessed with two spinning all-rounders, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, who are efficient with the bat in their hands and Wriddhiman Saha, who had been unreliable before the start of the four-Test series against the West Indies, has started contributing crucial runs, as well, with the bat, lower down the order.
Karun Nair, as you can see, is the more natural choice to replace Rohit Sharma in India’s Playing XI for the Rajkot Test. Not only is he in form, but Nair is also a pure batsman who can bat at No. 6 and with his good batting technique, render solidity on pitches that are expected to be dry and assist the spinners. In case India’s top-order is dismissed cheaply and India find themselves four down for not too many on the board, you want Nair, who has proved to be a top-class batsman at the First-Class level, to be walking in.
Hardik Pandya has certainly upped his pace and bowled incisively for the most part during the ODI series against New Zealand. But his seam bowling is not indispensable in Indian conditions and he does not have the batting technique necessary to survive on the dry, turning Indian pitches.