Kohli hints at Dhawan over Rahul for opening slot
Shikhar Dhawan is likely to partner M Vijay at the top of the order, with KL Rahul missing out, in the first Test of India's tour of the West Indies starting in Antigua on Thursday. India also seem set to play five bowlers, on a pitch that their captain Virat Kohli felt would not offer too much bounce. Kohli did not lay out the selection calls explicitly, but strongly hinted at them in his press conference on the eve of the Test match.
"In international cricket, you need to understand one thing that you cannot count players out because of one series," Kohli said. "If you're talking about KL Rahul, obviously he's improved leaps and bounds as a cricketer in the last 3-4 months. He's established himself as the third opener for India, he's a regular in the Test side, he played in Sri Lanka as well, scored runs there.
"But that's one call you need to take as a captain, and that's why they say the job is never easy. It's just that, whoever starts a Test series, he has an edge over [the player] who has to wait for his chance, but at the same time, we have four Test matches and you will get a chance at some stage.
"If you speak about KL Rahul and someone like Shikhar, it's very difficult to take a call up front, in the first match of a series, because someone like Shikhar is a very dominant player, he can dominate sessions and bring you into the Test match, especially in conditions like West Indies.
"You saw how he played in Sri Lanka, he scored a very quick hundred, but got injured unfortunately, but that's what I mean. You can't count out a guy like Shikhar because of a couple of innings here and there. So we need to give guys a decent run, and know that if something goes wrong, we have a quality player like Rahul waiting in the wings and he's as solid as anyone in world cricket right now, and he'll do a good job whenever he gets a chance."
There was a smattering of grass on the surface, and Kohli felt its main purpose was to bind the soil underneath, rather than provide any major assistance to the quick bowlers.
"I think the surface looks really dry and soft," he said. "It's not as hard as some of the other surfaces in West Indies. The wicket is no different from what we play back home, actually. It's basically where we have soft wickets and the soil is loose, it's bound by the grass, so have to keep that cover on, so I think it'll be a decent batting wicket.
"There won't be much bounce, not as much bounce as some of the other places in West Indies, somewhere like Barbados or Jamaica where the spinners get a lot of bounce. That won't be the case here, that's what I feel, after reading the wicket, so we'll have to plan accordingly where we need to bowl."
In the days leading up to the Test match, India's nets hierarchy seemed to indicate that Rohit Sharma would not feature in their starting XI, and that either Stuart Binny or Ravindra Jadeja would play instead to provide an extra bowling option. Without saying India would definitely do so, Kohli said he was "in favour of five bowlers".
"We have some plans in our mind, but we can't disclose those things now," he said. "But when we played in Australia and in Sri Lanka, we learned that it's crucial to attack in the first match, and to set the tone for the series. For that you will need to play your strongest bowling unit in the first match.
"And as batsmen, we want to take responsibility, so as a captain I'm always in favour of five bowlers, because if you don't take 20 wickets, it doesn't matter if you score 700 runs, there's no point. We have been playing with that mindset for the last one-and-a-half-to-two years, and we will start this series with the same mindset, and see that our bowling is as strong as it needs to be to take 20 wickets.
"As a captain, you will want that your prime bowler, even if he only bowls 10 overs, if he concedes only 20 runs in those 10 overs and picks up two wickets, he will keep the pressure on. If your part-timer bowls five overs and concedes 30, the pressure will disappear. So I think in a Test match, that when that moment comes, it becomes crucial how well your fifth bowler bowls.
"And on this wicket, the plans of bowling outside off stump may not be that successful because there won't be too much pace and bounce. So bowlers who will bowl stump-to-stump lines and wicket-taking bowlers will be more effective. That is the mindset we plan to get into the Test match with, and start the series on a positive note."
With Mohammed Shami back to full match fitness after a long layoff with a knee injury, Kohli welcomed back a pace bowler whom he called "a complete package". Given the amount of bowling he has done at the nets, Shami seems likely to edge Umesh Yadav out of the eleven as Ishant Sharma's new-ball partner.
"Shami, unfortunately he got injured while he was having a great season," Kohli said. "He bowled really well in South Africa, he bowled well in New Zealand, he bowled well in England, I mean he bowled well everywhere that he played. Australia as well, in the Test matches, in the World Cup he was outstanding, so, unfortunately he got injured after that, you know, had a massive break.
"But now he's back, he's bowling really well. Obviously, he's a gun bowler, we all know that, the areas he hits is what you need in Test cricket, very attacking lines and lengths, and he has the ability to get batsmen out at any stage of the game, which as a captain is very pleasing and important, so Shami being back in the side obviously gives us a lot of options. The guy can bowl well with the new ball, with the old ball, reverse-swinging it, he can come around the wicket, use bouncers and use his pace as well. So I think as a fast bowler he's a complete package, and I only wish him the best of luck for the season, and hope he delivers for us like he's done in the past as well."
Five years ago, during India's last full tour of the Caribbean, Kohli made his Test debut and endured a difficult series, not managing a single half-century in five innings and showing discomfort against the short ball. However, Kohli said he was happy to be back where it all began.
"It's a memorable place for me," he said. "I made my Test debut here. It's nice to come back after so many years, and having played so many Test matches all over the world in between. Obviously, I had improved as a Test cricketer.
"Obviously I had little clue about Test cricket [on the 2011 tour]. I came here and found out a lot about the format and what the challenges were at that stage. This is one place that made me start realising where you needed to improve as far as Test cricket was concerned.
"I'm really happy to be back here. I've been here a couple of times after that, but never played Test cricket afterwards. So it's a nice place to come and play. The atmosphere is really good, people like cricket, they support it. I'm really excited to play a Test match here after so long. So is everyone else in the team."
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo