Kohli, Hardik, Ishant return to India's 18-member squad for first two England Tests

Bumrah, Ashwin cleared to play, Natarajan rested, while Axar earns call-up

Nagraj Gollapudi
Ishant Sharma is three short of 100 Tests  •  Getty Images

Ishant Sharma is three short of 100 Tests  •  Getty Images

Hardik Pandya has been included in India's 18-man squad for the first two Tests of the home series against England, starting next month. ESPNcricinfo understands the national selectors, who met today, have also handed a call-up to left-arm spinner Axar Patel to strengthen the spin department.
The squad was finalised by the newly assembled Indian selection committee headed by former India fast bowler Chetan Sharma. Attending the meeting virtually was India captain Virat Kohli, who had returned home in December from the Australia tour to attend the birth of his first child. Also present at the meeting, which took place hours after India's epic triumph in the Gabba Test, were the four other selectors: Sunil Joshi, Abey Kuruvilla, Debashish Mohanty and Harvinder Singh, who is in Brisbane.
Apart from Kohli, also making a return was Ishant Sharma.He was forced to miss the Test series in Australia as the selectors wanted him to regain complete match fitness despite him recovering completely by mid-November from the injury he picked up during the IPL. Ishant, who is three matches away from becoming only the second India fast bowler after Kapil Dev to play in 100 Tests, proved his match fitness while turning up for Delhi during the group stage of ongoing Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
Along with Ishant, the Indian fast bowling attack will comprise Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur. Both Siraj and Thakur were part of India's historic series win against Australia.
Pandya picked as specialist batsman
Pandya - who lost his father last week - has played 11 Tests, the last one being the final match of the 2018 England tour. In 2019 Pandya underwent back surgery, which limited his role to primarily as a batsman. Even in the 2020 IPL, where he played for defending champions Mumbai Indians, Pandya did not bowl. Apart from a stray spell in the second ODI against Australia, Pandya only played as a specialist batsman in the series.
In November, after ending as Player of the Series in the T20 leg of the Australia tour, Pandya, during a media conference, conveyed in jest he would be ready to stay back for the Test series if the selectors would ask him. However, Kohli said Pandya would need to start bowling to make a Test comeback.
However, at Tuesday's meeting, it is understood Kohli agreed with the selectors that Pandya was good enough to feature as a specialist batsman at the moment with an eye on working his way back as an allrounder by the time India land in England for the five-match Test series in July.
Patel the allrounder pips Nadeem to take Jadeja's role
The absence of Ravindra Jadeja, who had a finger surgery recently after the Sydney Test, meant the selectors were on a lookout for an able replacement. With India likely to play three spinners in order to dominate Joe Root's England on spinner-friendly pitches, the selectors wanted a third option in addition to R Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav.
Both Shahbaz Nadeem and Patel were the lead contenders based on their experience and success in first-class cricket including at India A. Nadeem, who has played a solitary Test, against South Africa in 2019, has 443 first-class wickets, 83 of which have come for India A at an average of under 30. It is understood the selectors preferred Patel, who has played white-ball cricket for India, due to his lower-order batting prowess with which he had made an impact in the white-ball segment.
Even in first-class cricket, Patel, who plays for Gujarat (the last two Tests are scheduled in Ahmedabad).has decent numbers as a bowling allrounder: 134 wickets and 1665 runs in 39 first-class games including a century and 13 half-centuries.
Nadeem, the selectors found, had a weaker bowling form in the last two years in first-class cricket compared to Patel, who played a pivotal role in Gujarat making the Ranji semi-finals in the 2019-20 season.
Rahul to return from second Test
Rahul, who has not played in the longer format since 2019 tour of West Indies, sprained his wrist midway into the Test series in Australia. However, he is on the mend and based on his fitness status, the selectors have drafted him for the England series from the second Test.
The selectors are set to meet once again during or immediately after the second Test to pick to update the squad for the final two matches of the series including the day-night Tests, which will be played in newly built ground in Motera.
It is expected the panel will at the time assess the fitness status of the fast bowling pair of Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav along with Jadeja, who all picked different injures in Australia. While Shami had an elbow fracture, Yadav pulled his calf and Jadeja had a dislocated finger.
Natarajan rested
T Natarajan, who has had a fairy tale few months since the 2020 IPL, followed by successful debut for India in all three formats on the Australian tour, has been rested by the selectors. The idea being Natarajan, who travelled to Australia directly from the IPL and also missed the birth of his daughter, would be ready for the white-ball segment of the homes series against England, which comprises of five T20Is and three ODIs.
Nadeem among standbys
The selectors have also named four standbys, who will be inducted into the squad in case anyone from the main squad needed to be replaced. These standbys, essentially back-ups, will not be travelling with the India squad, but will be pulled out of the second domestic tournament, which the BCCI will announce shortly, if there is a requirement.
Among the standbys, all of whom have featured in India A, are India and Jharkhand left-arm spinner Shahbaz Nadeem, Andhra wicket-keeper KS Bharat, Bengal opening batsman Abhimanyu Easwaran, Gujarat batsman Priyank Panchal and Rajasthan legspinner Rahul Chahar.
Also part of the enhanced squad, which has become a norm due to the pandemic, will be five net bowlers comprising: the fast bowling trio of Ankit Rajpoot (Uttar Pradesh), Avesh Khan (Madhya Pradesh) and Sandeep Warrier (Kerala). There are also two spinners among the net bowlers: Karnataka spin-bowling allrounder K Gowtham and Uttar Pradesh left-arm spinner Saurabh Kumar.
Main squad:
Openers: Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Mayank Agarwal
Middle-order: Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (captain), Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant, Wriddhiman Saha, Hardik Pandya, KL Rahul (subject to fitness after first Test)
Fast bowlers: Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur
Spinners: R Ashwin, Kuldeep Yadav, Washington Sundar, Axar Patel
Standbyes: KS Bharat (wicketkeeper), Abhimanyu Easwaran, Shahbaz Nadeem, Rahul Chahar, Priyank Panchal
Net bowlers: Ankit Rajpoot, Avesh Khan, Sandeep Warrier, K Gowtham, Saurabh Kumar

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo