Who will open for India alongside Mayank Agarwal in the first Test against New Zealand? Going into the series, it was a straight shootout between Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill. Shaw was preferred over Gill in the opener's role in the warm-up game and he scored a few more than Gill, which might have sealed the deal in his favour.
It was always going to be a tough call between the two promising players. Shaw scored a Test hundred on debut, followed it with another impressive knock in his second match, and was set to play in Australia but twisted his ankle. When he recovered from the injury, he found himself suspended for a doping offence.
Gill has been scoring runs by the truckload and was picked as a third opener for two consecutive home series, against South Africa and Bangladesh, albeit without getting an opportunity in either. And now that the opportunity has presented itself, Shaw seems to have pipped him to the post.
There is another opening option talked about - Hanuma Vihari - but I think we should reward players for their performances and not penalise them. Vihari has been asked to open in the past, but he has now earned the right to bat in the middle order and that's where he should stay. If India are still going to push him to open, the fact that they will be doing so despite having selected three specialist openers will be farcical.
Now, let's move on to the challenges the Indian openers are likely to face in New Zealand, especially in the first Test match, in Wellington. The venue for that game is the old Basin Reserve, not the Westpac Stadium, where a white-ball match was played earlier in the series. That new stadium is built like a coliseum, and even there, high catches were a little difficult to judge because of the velocity of the wind. The Basin Reserve is an open ground with the wind blowing at 100 kph - or that's what it feels like, at least. It's worth exploring what the Indian openers will be up against in terms of New Zealand's key bowlers and the conditions.
Boult is now fit and available, and he is likely to make an impact right away. He will bring the ball back in (both in the air and off the surface) to the two right-hand Indian openers, and both Agarwal and Shaw will have to be mindful of their forward stride - it must neither go too long or too far across.
While Agarwal's forward stride is a little bigger and falls across sometimes, Shaw's front-foot movement is almost non-existent. In his young international career, Agarwal hasn't been dismissed lbw too many times so far, but it is a possible threat in seaming conditions. Shaw, on the other hand, stays beside the ball all the time, and while that ensures his front leg is rarely in the way of the ball, the lack of front-foot movement leaves a huge gap between pad and bat. At the Basin Reserve he might need to force himself to go forward a little to negate the incoming movement.
The thing that is likely to work for both Indian openers is their approach to Test cricket - both are aggressive and look for runs. On a day when the ball seams around a lot, it's important to not just punish the loose balls but also stay in a positive frame of mind. Once you start thinking about attacking, your body starts getting into more positive positions. That's something I should have figured out during my playing days!
Southee might not have the requisite white-ball skills to bowl in the death overs, but he has what it takes to be extremely successful in red-ball cricket. He has the ability to not only swing the ball away from right-hand batsmen but also the knowhow to set up dismissals.
He is one of the finest exponents of the art of using the crease to create different angles and set batsmen up. He starts close to the stumps and takes the ball away, then bowls from the middle of the box and does the same thing - the only difference being that the ball seem to swing a little less in the second case because of the change in angle. Then he will go really wide of the crease and still bowl an outswinger; this time, the angle will make you believe that the ball is coming in but it will shape away ever so slightly in the end.
He also bowls this slightly wide and full-length ball that encourages the drive. If you haven't covered the swing, you will possibly see the ball meet the outside edge and head towards the crowded slip cordon.
Southee brings the ball back into the right-hand batsman by rolling his fingers slightly over it, so once you see the seam wobbling, you must prepare for the ball to come in after pitching.
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Just like Boult, Southee is well equipped to handle the wind in the first Test. Running into the wind might be an issue for both him and Boult (who has just come out of an injury) but both know how to drop their pace to use the sideways movement caused by the wind to their advantage.
He is the kind of bowler every captain wants in his side - your typical workhorse, who keeps running in all day long without relenting or releasing the pressure. Wagner is not someone who swings the ball a great deal, for he prefers to hit the deck hard every time he bowls. He bowls a heavy ball - or hits the ball higher on the bat than the batsman expected it to. He doesn't mind going around the stumps to create different angles, and he bowls a fair amount of short-pitched stuff through the day. Given the angles that he creates and the height he maintains on his bouncer, taking him on all the time is playing with fire. Sooner or later, you're likely to be dismissed either gloving to the keeper or caught in the deep.
The Indian top order will have to bear in mind that Wagner will present a completely different set of challenges compared to the two senior bowlers, Boult and Southee, but while he might seem innocuous from time to time, he should never be treated as a release bowler.