Fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah has earned a maiden Test call-up, after being named in the 17-member squad for the three-Test series against South Africa, which starts from January 5 in Cape Town. Wicketkeeper-batsman Parthiv Patel, Bumrah's state mate and captain at Gujarat, has also been recalled, as back-up wicket-keeping option for Wriddhiman Saha.
The pair of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Pandya returned to the Test squad after voluntary breaks from the ongoing home Test series against Sri Lanka. The two men in the existing Test squad who missed out were left-arm wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav and Tamil Nadu allrounder Vijay Shankar, who had replaced Bhuvneshwar in the squad for the Nagpur and Delhi Tests.
Bumrah can be seen as radical choice mainly because he has not played first-class cricket in nearly a year. His last appearance in whites came when he turned up for Gujarat in the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy semi-final against Jharkhand in January this year. However, the fast nature of pitches at the three Test venues in South Africa - Cape Town, Centurion and Johannesburg - meant that the selectors were keen to have a fifth specialist fast bowler despite Pandya's presence as an allrounder.
Bumrah's ability to swing the ball into the right-handers, his searing pace and crushing, accurate yorkers and his bowling smarts pushed him quickly ahead in the selection queue. His recent form was also not lost on the selectors. In limited-overs cricket Bumrah has been stellar this year: with 35 wickets, he is the fourth-highest wicket-taker in ODIs in 2017.
India's chairman of selectors MSK Prasad said it was hard to look beyond Bumrah for the fifth fast bowler's slot given his "phenomenal" form.
"If you see his performance in the last 18 months, he's been phenomenal," Prasad said after the selection meeting in Delhi. "He's been sensational and has done outstandingly well in both one-day and T20. Considering the Ranji Trophy he played last year (where) he bowled brilliantly in the whole season, we have no doubts. It is a unanimous choice and there is no doubt in picking Bumrah because he definitely adds variety to our pace attack. And considering the nature of wickets there, it will definitely suit his bowling."
The rest of the squad, as Prasad pointed out, "picked itself", with no surprises. The selectors might have been tempted to include Kuldeep, considering his unorthodox spin could have been an X-factor against the South Africa batsmen. However, in the end the selectors and captain Virat Kohli, who attended the meeting, opted to play it safe and bank on their two senior spinners, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
According to Prasad, Kuldeep remained in the mix of things, but it was impossible to think of playing him ahead of Ashwin and Jadeja, who are ranked No. 4 and 2 respectively in the ICC rankings for Test bowlers.
"I really feel unfortunate for Kuldeep Yadav. Definitely he would have added (variety), but we are going to play only three Test matches. Considering to play Kuldeep ahead of No.1 and No.2 spinners in the world is a bit of a big ask."
Parthiv remains the best glovesman after Saha in the longer formats. Given his impressive form and ability to bat at any position, he was an automatic choice for the back-up wicket-keeper's slot. Parthiv was part of the India squad for the home series against England last year where he played three Tests, in Mohali, Mumbai and Chennai. He scored 195 runs including two fifties at a healthy average of 65. In the ongoing domestic season, Parthiv has compiled 421 runs in 11 innings.
Prasad brushed aside skepticism about picking Parthiv, who has not been part of the India squad since the England series
"When we had given an opportunity against England he did beyond our expectations. We all know that Wriddhiman Saha is the side's No.1 wicketkeeper, [but] we still need to have a back-up wicketkeeper. Right now he [Parthiv] is the next-best wicketkeeper that we have in India. His domestic performances are also equally good."
India will depart for South Africa on December 27 and start their tour with a two-day warm-up match in Paarl on December 30 and 31. Asked whether there was any plan to send the Test-only players ahead for acclimatization, Amitabh Choudhury, the BCCI secretary, said no such plan had been discussed with the team management.
Regardless, Prasad exuded confidence saying India were well equipped to enter the tough contest against South Africa. "We are going there as the No.1 Test team. We are going with a very good confidence. Everybody is in very good form. Hence, on that basis, I am saying this is a good, balanced side."