India will begin their new decade in Test cricket with two Tests in New Zealand, starting on February 21. The series, being part of the World Test Championship (WTC), is very significant for India; they would be fairly confident of making the inaugural WTC final in June 2021 if they were to win this series. On January 12, India's selection panel, led by MSK Prasad, will pick India's squads for this tour - there are five T20Is and three ODIs to play before the two Tests.
The selectors and the Indian team management have agreed that they need to offer a long run to the pool of players they have been fielding in limited-overs cricket, so it is unlikely they will tinker much with those squads. The one big change on this front is likely to be the return of allrounder Hardik Pandya post his back surgery.
But, keeping in mind the significance of the Test series, it poses a number of questions. Here's what the five-man selection panel is likely to deliberate on Sunday.
Who can be the third opener-cum-back-up batsman?
With Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal forming a good partnership at the top during the home Test season, the selectors will focus on picking a third opener who can also offer back-up elsewhere. There is more than one available option for this. Leading the way, clearly, is KL Rahul, who has been delivering in the limited-overs formats. Along with Hanuma Vihari, Rahul can also play the extra specialist batsman's role in the top order.
Others in the race would be the youth brigade comprising Shubman Gill, Prithvi Shaw, Priyank Panchal and Abhimanyu Easwaran. All four were named in the India A side as part of the shadow tour. Shaw would have considered himself as a favourite, but an untimely shoulder injury might push him to the back of the queue. While Shaw was serving his doping ban, Gill was named in the Test squads for the West Indies tour, and the home Tests against West Indies and Bangladesh.
Will Hardik Pandya return in whites?
After being forced to undergo a back surgery, Hardik has been included only in the limited-overs leg of India A's tour of New Zealand. The last time Hardik was part of the Indian Test squad was during the 2018 England tour. Between then and now he has played one first-class match, in December 2018. The selectors might think it is too big a risk to rush the allrounder into the Test squad, especially with T20 World Cup scheduled later this year. This could mean India are likely to continue with R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja as the two - spin-bowling - allrounders.
A fifth fast bowler or a third spinner?
Usually on overseas trips, India have travelled with at least 16 players - such was the case on their last away trip too, to the Caribbean in July last year.
Here, the selectors will keep in mind that there is just a three-day break between the two Tests. Also, importantly, the pitches in New Zealand over the last decade have slowed down. So do they pick four fast bowlers and a third spinner in Kuldeep Yadav, whom India coach Ravi Shastri had said would be his lead overseas spinner following the triumph in Australia last year? Or will they pick a fifth fast bowler in the absence of a fast-bowling allrounder like Hardik? If they go with the latter, Navdeep Saini is likely to be the primary choice although he will not feature in the two first-class matches India A will play prior to the Test series.
Probable India Test squad: Virat Kohli (capt), Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Rishabh Pant (wk), R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav/Navdeep Saini