West Indies' batting in the spotlight as Prithvi Shaw debuts
If West Indies need any extra motivation on the eve of their Test series against India, all they need to do is to turn to the sports pages of the Indian newspapers. All they will see are post-mortems of the England tour and planning for the Australia tour. The Indian cricket establishment has been dealing in elegant variations of "4-1 flattered England" and talking of bouncier pitches at home or using the A tour of New Zealand as preparation for Australia. Nobody is saying it in as many words, but a 2-0 win for India has already been assumed.
The reason might not necessarily be disrespect. India just know they are that damn good at home. West Indies don't have the spin reserves to challenge India on even terms unless provided a raging turner, but their batting is no pushover. They showed that in England, winning a Test chasing 322. In Kraigg Brathwaite, Shai Hope and Roston Chase they have a core that has been together for a while. Shimron Hetmeyer and Sunil Ambris are full of promise. Rajkot and Hyderabad are not known for explosive turn; this is the chance for West Indies' batting to make it difficult for the Indian bowlers.
India's cricket establishment might be talking England and Australia, but for the players the time to switch on has arrived. This is the start of a new mini-era. This is the first time India are playing without a fit M Vijay and a fit Shikhar Dhawan since December 2012. The doors are never permanently closed on players in their early 30s, but there seems to be an attempt to make a clean break. Prithvi Shaw will get a chance to herald this new era and possibly book himself a place on the plane to Australia.
The middle order will cherish some respite after eight Tests in tough batting conditions in South Africa and England. The focus will be back on the spinners. West Indies will have to bat out of their skins.
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In the spotlight
KL Rahul has spent quite a while in the shadows of Vijay and Dhawan. Even when he got a full series in - like he did against Australia last year - and backed it up with runs, events outside his control would somehow deny him a long run. Now the selectors and the management have told him they rely on him, they have faith in him, and now begins the pay-off.
The best time to bat in India is at the top of the order. At the top of West Indies' order is an old-fashioned Test batsman who has quietly made his way to his 50th Test, a landmark celebrated vividly by India and England players a season and a half ago. Kraigg Brathwaite will get to his 50th without much fanfare, just as his career has been. He is one of the rare modern batsmen who revels in defence. He will have to combine it with ways to transfer the pressure back on the bowlers because the India spinners can wheel in all day in these conditions.
India have broken from their tradition of keeping their cards close to their chest by naming a 12-man shortlist on the eve of the Test. The big news is that we have an 18-year-old debutant, in Prithvi Shaw. India are back to playing just the five specialist batsmen. The choice remains between a third spinner and a third fast bowler. If it is three fast bowlers, there could be two debuts on Thursday: Shardul Thakur is the third quick in the twelve.
India: 1 KL Rahul, 2 Prithvi Shaw, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt.), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Rishabh Pant (wk), 7 R Ashwin, 8 Ravindra Jadeja, 9 Umesh Yadav, 10 Mohammed Shami, 11 Kuldeep Yadav/ Shardul Thakur
West Indies will be without Kemar Roach, who had to go back home because of a bereavement in the family and will not be back in time. Ambris has impressed with a rapid hundred in the warm-up game, and he might get a go in the middle order.
West Indies (possible): 1 Kraigg Brathwaite, 2 Kieran Powell, 3 Shai Hope, 4 Sunil Ambris, 5 Shimron Hetmeyer, 6 Roston Chase, 7 Shane Dowrich (wk), 8 Jason Holder (capt), 9 Keemo Paul, 10 Devendra Bishoo, 11 Shannon Gabriel
Pitch and conditions
When the home Ranji Trophy team Saurashtra need a result, the Rajkot pitch can become a spiteful turner, but as they showed in the venue's debut Test in 2016, the organisers want a longer contest when it comes to Test cricket. Then there have been murmurs that the BCCI's curators have flown in to try to replicate the bounce the batsmen will encounter in Australia. It will be interesting to see how it turns out if the experiment is allowed to go ahead. Otherwise expect a pitch good for batting for the first two-and-a-half days, and then the natural wear and tear to take effect.
Stats and trivia
- West Indies last won a Test in India in 1994. Since then they have played only eight Tests here.
- Among active batsmen with 3000 or more runs, Brathwaite's strike of 41.63 is the second-lowest, only marginally behind Azhar Ali's 41.50.
- Cheteshwar Pujara starts the series 191 short of 5000 career runs, Rahul 189 short of 2000.
- With a win-loss ratio of 7.5, India have been the most dominant home side this decade, winning 30 Tests and losing only four.
"Apart from the top order getting cemented, I don't think that with these two Test matches there is a lot that we are looking at. Rest of the team looks quite settled, it's just that at the top of the order, these guys are new and will take a bit of time to get into it. They definitely have the skillset and are supremely talented and what we have seen of them is very, very exciting."
India captain Virat Kohli hopes for top-order solutions to emerge during this series
"All our batters have to have a gameplan and know how you're looking to score, and how you're looking to make runs against this quality attack in their own backyard. One of the things I spoke about is patience. We've got to be patient but not only that, we have to capitalise on any loose delivery or any opportunity to score"
West Indies captain Jason Holder
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo