India’s selectors have picked a largely predictable team for the series against New Zealand. When their job is simple, it means the team is doing most things right and given the results of the last three series that is a fair statement to make. It must be remembered that India were but one decent drainage system away from being on top of the Test rankings.
Typically, when you pick 15 players you have a very good idea of the starting eleven and provide a back-up in each of four categories; opener, middle-order batsman, spinner and fast bowler. I think it is safe to presume that India will play three spinners and so the absence of a back up spinner in the squad is the only aspect that is slightly unusual. That slot has gone to an extra pace bowler and I suspect that is how the captain likes it. But it is a minor matter, you can let it pass.
You could, with a very acceptable degree of confidence pick ten of the starting eleven. Murali Vijay has been excellent for India in the last few years and Lokesh Rahul has done whatever has been asked of him. Cheteshwar Pujara struggled in the West Indies but he has been extremely impressive in the Duleep Trophy where he played for a team with some colour attached to it.
And he looked very fluent and positive and it must need a sporting earthquake to move him now from no 3. That also allows Virat Kohli to play in the position that currently suits him best. He has, one gets the impression, the ambition of becoming a no 3 and given that often the best player bats there, it is not a bad one to have. But currently he is doing rather well at no 4 and him and Rahane, almost Laxman-esque with the lower order, are in good positions.
Ashwin, Saha, Jadeja and Mishra pick themselves on Indian wickets and they can all bat though Jadeja, one hopes, is itching to get his batting average closer to 30. And after the tour of the West Indies Mohd Shami is back as India’s number one seamer (even if reverse swing is likely to be his strongest weapon!). So there you are, that’s ten players.
The selectors have given the captain and coach every option to pick the kind of player they think is best to complete the eleven.
A tall hit the deck bowler like Ishant Sharma could be handy if the pitch starts to have uneven bounce and, in all fairness, he is bowling quite well.
A second pacy, reverse swing option exists in Yadav and Bhubaneshwar Kumar produced one of the spells of the series in the West Indies. Unless of course four bowlers is deemed enough. Typically, unless the surface is very slow, you shouldn’t need more than a hundred overs too often and with three spinners that isn’t a colossal work load. But I suspect Kohli would like, at all times, a fresh fast bowler with the old ball.
Having said that, Kumble has often spoken about four bowlers being sufficient in Indian conditions; and that could well mean an opportunity for Rohit Sharma or, if a left hander is desired in the mix (the earliest otherwise is at no 8) given a left arm spinner and a leg spinner in the opposition, Shikhar Dhawan is around. The eleventh player is normally a leader’s preference and Kohli has enough options.
Could the selectors have looked around a bit more? I think Manish Pandey has made a strong case and is playing the best cricket of his career. If the selectors felt that Rohit Sharma hasn’t had an extended run, they need to give him one at some point because otherwise it creates a stalemate that benefits no one. If he can’t command that place, then you simply have to ask yourself if he is the next best. For there is little point in picking Pandey and have him on the bench instead of scoring more runs for Karnataka.
I thought Kuldeep Yadav might get a look-in. The Ranji Trophy doesn’t begin till the second Test is over and I thought he might have benefitted from bowling in front of Kumble and chatting with him while others were on the field. And if someone twisted an ankle, he would be ready to play as the third spinner. I realise Jayant Yadav is playing for India ‘A’ but with Ashwin around, Kuldeep provides a different option for now.
And I am delighted that Gautam Gambhir is still hungry. He is a tough cricketer and, as a very good captain, will know that if there is a choice between him and a younger player, the other man will get the nod. But there is only thing a batsman can do and that is to use the weight of runs to break the door down. The likes of Gambhir, Mayank Agarwal, Manish Pandey, Shreyas Iyer, Mandeep Singh, Karun Nair, Sheldon Jackson, the two Yadav spinners, Nathu Singh, Shardul Thakur and Varun Aaron will make following domestic cricket interesting this year.