Four selection puzzles for India at Edgbaston

The opening combination, the No. 3, and the composition of the bowling attack could all give the team management headaches

Nagraj Gollapudi
Will either Cheteshwar Pujara or R Ashwin find a place in India's XI at Edgbaston?  •  BCCI

Will either Cheteshwar Pujara or R Ashwin find a place in India's XI at Edgbaston?  •  BCCI

India reached Birmingham on Monday to get ready for the Edgbaston Test that begins on July 1. The match will conclude the Pataudi Trophy series that began last summer before the fifth and final Test, originally scheduled for Manchester, was cancelled in September.
Much has changed since then, with India now having a new captain and a new head coach. ESPNcricinfo looks at some of the key questions that India's team management will ponder before they finalise their XI.
Who should open if Rohit can't play?
If Rohit Sharma is fit, then it is straightforward: he opens with Shubman Gill, who batted three times in the warm-up game in Leicester and batted at the top of the order each time. If Rohit hasn't recovered fully from his bout of Covid-19, however, India will have to choose between three options for Gill's partner. These options are Cheteshwar Pujara, KS Bharat and Mayank Agarwal, who will reach Birmingham three days before the Test. Pujara has played the interim role of opener in the past, the last occasion being in the home series against New Zealand last year when Gill was injured in the second innings of the first Test. Agarwal is a specialist opener, but he will only have two proper batting sessions before having to ready himself to face the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Matthew Potts.
Bharat, picked originally as the second wicketkeeper, might fancy his chances, for twin reasons. First, he was among the few Indian batters to score runs in both innings: 70 not out in the first while batting in the middle order, and 43 as opener in the second innings against a Leicestershire attack that included Jasprit Bumrah, Prasidh Krishna and Navdeep Saini. Add to that his extensive experience of opening the innings: he has batted at the top of the order 77 times out of his 125 innings overall. And while the last time he opened in first-class cricket was in 2018, he will not be overwhelmed if the opportunity comes his way.
Should Pujara bat at No. 3?
When India's selectors dropped him, alongside Ajinkya Rahane, for the home series against Sri Lanka earlier this year, Pujara had endured a long run of poor form. In 20 Tests since the start of 2020, he had averaged just 26.29. India's selectors seemed to be on the lookout for new candidates for the middle-order engine room alongside Virat Kohli.
Steadfast as ever, though, Pujara forced himself back into the squad for Edgbaston with a mountain of runs in a short stint with Sussex in Division Two of the County Championship. In Leicester, though, he made a duck at No. 3 in Leicestershire's first innings, then walked out for the Indians the next day, in the lower order, and scored 22. After those displays, the question hasn't gone away: should India play Pujara at No. 3?
Hanuma Vihari is the other contender, having performed the No. 3 role in the two-Test series against Sri Lanka in March, scoring a solitary fifty in three innings. Vihari came in at one-down for the Indians twice in Leicester and then turned up at No. 4 for the hosts in the final innings of the drawn match with returns of 3, 20 and 23, spending time at the crease without looking dominant. The selectors and the team management want Vihari to gain more experience to build his confidence. Pujara, meanwhile, has experience and runs in England, and was India's third-highest run-getter in the first four Tests last year, including vital second-innings knocks in India's wins at Lord's and The Oval.
It is an interesting riddle. There is a chance, of course, that both could play in the middle order, if India leave out Shreyas Iyer, who is the incumbent No. 5, but that might be unlikely given that he comes into the tour with three fifties and a hundred in his first four Tests, even though he's not been tested outside India yet.
Does Ashwin find a place?
R Ashwin sat out all four Tests in England last summer as the team management, then led by Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri along with bowling coach Bharat Arun, preferred to play Ravindra Jadeja as the lone spin-bowling allrounder. India played a four-pronged fast-bowling attack that usually included Shardul Thakur as the second allrounder in the aftermath of their defeat in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand in Southampton, where they had fielded both Ashwin and Jadeja.
Ashwin joined the Indian squad over the weekend, after his departure got delayed due to his testing positive for Covid-19. In Leicester, Ashwin turned out to bowl in the final innings of the match, picking up two wickets including that of Gill to prove his match-fitness.
While the pitches in England last summer were generally green and seam-friendly, they have been flatter and more conducive to big totals this year, during England's just-concluded three-Test series against New Zealand. The batch of Dukes balls used this year has also seemingly offered the fast bowlers less sideways movement. This has meant that spinners have played a bigger role this season, with Jack Leach picking up a 10-wicket match haul in the third Test in Leeds.
Conditions at Edgbaston might determine if Ashwin gets a chance. If they are similar to those that prevailed during the New Zealand series, there's a chance that India may go back to playing both their spinners. If they are similar to last year, however, they may stick to the four-seamer formula, in which case Jadeja's batting skills might edge out Ashwin again.
Who should be the third frontline seamer?
The new-ball pair of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami showed in Leicester that they are primed for the England challenge, delivering intense spells of fast bowling. The only possible question concerning the fast-bowling combination could be who plays the role of the third seamer. Last year, Mohammed Siraj unleashed furious spells, particularly while picking up eight wickets at Lord's. With 14 wickets in four Tests, Siraj was only four behind Bumrah among India's bowlers overall.
At the Oval, Umesh Yadav came into the side to play only his second Test on his third tour of England, bowled untiring spells, and rattled England's batters including Joe Root to pick a match haul of six wickets and keep himself in contention for the final Test in Manchester, which was eventually cancelled. Siraj and Umesh have played three Tests each since the Oval Test. Both will be hungry once again to stake their claim.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo