Rohit Sharma, ______, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, ______, Ravindra Jadeja, ______, ______, R Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, ______.
Six players seem to be near certainties in India's XI for the first Test against Australia
in Nagpur. The other five slots, however, could cause raging debates, with compelling options available to fill all of them. Here are the choices facing India's team management.
Iyer has only played seven Tests, but he's become a key middle-order player on turning tracks. With both him and Rishabh Pant
- who along with Ravindra Jadeja
are the only three India batters (minimum 5 innings) to average above 50 in Asia
since the start of 2021 - absent, India have a big hole to fill in the middle order.
Suryakumar hasn't played Test cricket, and his selection in the squad came largely on the back of what he's done in T20s. Where batters who typically get picked to play Test cricket for India break through with first-class averages in the high 50s or 60s, Suryakumar only averages 45.93 after 74 matches. But his is a wildcard selection, with India probably looking at him as a potential gamechanger in low-scoring Tests on turning pitches. In the last Ranji Trophy game he played, in December, Suryakumar scored a 107-ball 95
when Mumbai were bowled out for 230 by Saurashtra. Eight of the ten wickets in that innings, and 31 of the 40 in the match, fell to spin. If India reckon the Nagpur pitch will behave similarly, they could well decide to take the Suryakumar gamble.
Who opens with Rohit Sharma?
If India do play Suryakumar, they'll have a seriously tricky decision to make at the top of the order. Rohit Sharma
will return after missing both Tests in Bangladesh with a thumb injury, which means one of the two openers who played on that tour will either have to move down the order or sit out.
One of them was Gill, who scored a maiden Test hundred
in the first Test in Chattogram. The other was KL Rahul
, whose four innings on the tour brought him scores of 22, 23, 10 and 2.
Rahul, however, captained India in those two Tests, in Rohit's absence, and is the designated vice-captain for the first two Tests of this series. It would be a massive call for India to leave Rahul out, but it seems like the only way they can play both Gill and Suryakumar, if they're looking to go in that direction.
Who should keep wicket?
Pant's absence is the biggest hole in India's line-up, and neither wicketkeeper in their squad is really a like-for-like replacement. No other keeper in the world is, to be fair.
Over the last two years, Pant has performed two key roles for India. He's played game-changing innings in every kind of crisis situation, against all kinds of bowling on all kinds of pitches, and he's done this while turning himself into a world-class keeper. India were happy to play Wriddhiman Saha
ahead of Pant in home Tests when they felt he wasn't yet good enough with the gloves, particularly to spin bowling, and he worked on that side of his game and improved it beyond recognition.
When India choose their keeper for Nagpur, therefore, they'll place a lot of emphasis on his keeping skills, and this means KS Bharat
- who has been Pant's understudy for a year now, ever since India phased out Saha
- is likely to make his Test debut ahead of Ishan Kishan
Kishan's attacking approach and left-handedness - two characteristics he shares with Pant - would make him a tempting option for India, nonetheless, and he might have pushed extremely hard for selection if he had a strong white-ball series against Sri Lanka and New Zealand in January. As it happened, though, he went past 20 only once in nine ODI and T20I innings
, and also gave the impression that he needed to improve his glovework.
Ashwin, Jadeja and who?
"It's pretty dry. Particularly one end that I think will take a bit of spin, particularly the left-arm spinner spinning it back into our left-handers. There's a section there that's quite dry. Other than that, I can't really get a good gauge on it.
"I don't think there will be a heap of bounce in the wicket. I think for the seamers it will be quite skiddy and maybe a bit of up-and-down movement as the game goes on. The cracks felt quite loose. We'll wait and see when we get out there."
Who's the first bowler you'd pick on a dry pitch promising sharp turn, with a particularly dry section made for left-arm orthodox spinners to aim at outside the left-hand batters' off stump, against a top order packed with left-handers?
You might say Ravindra Jadeja, but if you had Axar Patel
in your squad, you'd probably pick him too.
It feels almost certain that India will pick Axar alongside Jadeja and R Ashwin
, even if their ex-coach Ravi Shastri feels Kuldeep Yadav should get a go
instead. Shastri's reason for backing Kuldeep, however, is sound - if India happen to bowl first, and if there doesn't turn out to be a great deal of help for the spinners on day one, Kuldeep would be likelier than any of the three finger-spinners to get something out of the pitch.
It's exactly what Kuldeep did in his most recent Test match, getting significantly more turn out of a flat Chattogram pitch than any of the five other spinners - all fingerspinners - playing that game, and picking up five wickets
in Bangladesh's first innings to give India a 254-run lead.
The decision could, in the end, hinge on India's reading of the pitch - given what Smith said, Axar seems likelier to play. There's a small chance that they could pick both, and play four spinners and just the one quick, but that might be overkill even on a square turner.
Which fast bowlers should play?
is almost certain to start, if fit. He has a phenomenal record in India - 67 wickets in 18 Tests at an average of 21.28 - and his skiddiness could be a major wicket-taking threat if there's low bounce to exploit.
is a similar bowler with a similar record in India - 98 wickets at 25.16 - and Nagpur happens to be his home ground in domestic cricket. India, however, have preferred Mohammed Siraj
to Umesh most times when they've had to make that choice, and it feels like they might in this match too, particularly given how good Siraj is against left-hand batters. If Australia pick both Matt Renshaw and Ashton Agar, they will have as many as six left-handers in their top eight.
, the other seamer in India's squad, seems unlikely to feature in Nagpur, unless illness or injury paves his way for selection. He could offer a point of difference as a left-arm quick if he plays, and also help in creating a rough outside the right-handers' off stump for Ashwin to bowl into.