India will be going into the boxing day test match with all eyes on team selection. The first test in Adelaide left India with more questions than answers. They will have had a week to think about their batting collapse by the time the match gets underway at the MCG.
The job is made tougher by the fact that the team’s premier batsman and captain, Virat Kohli, has flown back to India on paternity leave, to be present for the birth of his first child. Add to this, India’s envied pace-attack will be without two of their first choice fast bowlers in Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami, who fractured his wrist in the first test.
Stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane has some difficult decisions to make regarding team selection and we, at the Sports Gazette, have tried to decipher the best team combination going into the second test.
KL Rahul or Shubman Gill?
It’s no secret that Prithvi Shaw has been struggling for form lately. After scores of 0 and 4 in the first test, former cricketers have questioned his technique, fitness and mental preparation. Mayank Agarwal, his opening partner, did not fair much better, with scores of 17 and 9. Agarwal’s position however, is less of a topic of debate at the moment because of his superior technique.
Cricketing rationale and statistics suggest it should be Gill. The youngster averages 68.78 while opening the batting in first class cricket. In the second practice match at Sydney, he scored 43 and 65, giving a good account of his ability. His former under-19 captain Shaw, has been struggling for form off late, and will benefit with some time away from the limelight.
Gill is young, and should be given the next three test matches in his preferred position to make a mark. He has not played much cricket in the middle order, and looked out of sorts when he batted there for KKR in his first IPL season. It makes sense to keep him at the top of the order for his debut, and avoid unfamiliarity as much as possible, so that he has every opportunity to succeed come boxing day.
The Middle Order
Cheteshwar Pujara will continue batting at three, where he tormented the Australian bowling during their last tour down under in 2018/19. He will be hopeful of producing similar performances in the absence of Kohli. Pujara showed glimpses of it during the first innings and all eyes will be on him to take up responsibility and cement his legacy as ‘the wall’ in this team.
At number four, who should replace Kohli? The experience of Rahane makes him favourite to bat in this position. A veteran of 66 test matches, and now captaining the side, this is the time to take responsibility and show the world why the team management has kept their faith in him. He is not unfamiliar to the position, having batted there five times in his test career, averaging 70.
A good runner between the wickets, Rahane keeps the score ticking much like Kohli, which will help Pujara play his natural game at number three. Three and four have historically been the most important batting positions in test cricket and that’s why it is imperative that India’s two most experienced batsmen bat there.
At five, six and seven, Rahul, Ravindra Jadeja and Rishabh Pant should all be included. While Hanuma Vihari and Wridhiman Saha haven’t done much wrong, the absence of Kohli means that the middle-order will have to combine to make up the lost runs.
If we compare Rahul, Vihari and Saha’s collective batting average to Rahul, Jadeja and Pant, we will find that the former score 98 runs on average compared to 109 runs for the latter. The superior batting ability, coupled with the fact that Jadeja and Pant are left-handed batsmen, will make it more difficult for the Australian bowlers to get into any sort of rhythm.
Before the series began, the team management had confirmed that Rahul had been selected in the squad as a middle-order batsman. He has batted there for India in the limited-overs format and has done exceptionally well. His form with the bat in the last one year has been second to none and he will be looking to make a strong comeback at the ground where he made his test debut in 2014 as a 22-year-old.
Meanwhile, both Jadeja and Pant are counter-attacking batsmen and can take the attack to the bowlers when necessary. Let’s not forget that Jadeja is the only Indian with three triple centuries to his name in the Ranji Trophy, India’s premier domestic cricket competition. To add to this, Jadeja’s bowling and fielding will be additional bonuses and give Rahane more tactical flexibility.
The Third Fast Bowler
With Shami joining Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant on the fast bowling injury list, a debut test will be handed out to either Mohammed Siraj or Navdeep Saini.
Both Saini and Siraj have been around for a while, with Saini making his first-class debut for Delhi in 2013 and Siraj for Hyderabad in 2015. Saini has 125 first-class wickets at an average of 28.30 whereas Siraj has 147 wickets at an average of 23.
With Jasprit Bumrah and Umesh Yadav already bringing pace, the Indian team should go with Siraj, who brings more control and discipline compared to Saini, which will be required to put a quality opposition like Australia under pressure. Siraj took 19 first-class wickets in five games in the 2019/20 season, and his superior performances over the last one year just gives him the edge over Saini.
All eyes will be on the toss, when Rahane walks out with the team sheet in his hand on boxing day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Can India get the combination right and defend the Border-Gavaskar Trophy? All questions will be answered come Boxing Day.
Gill, Agarwal, Pujara, Rahane (c), Rahul, Jadeja, Pant (wk), Ashwin, Yadav, Bumrah, Siraj