India's selection puzzles: Three quicks or four? Bharat or Kishan?

How many spinners should India play? Should Ashwin or Axar partner Jadeja if they opt for a two-man spin attack?

Nagraj Gollapudi
In the inaugural World Test Championship final in 2021, in overcast conditions in Southampton, India fielded two spinners alongside three seamers against New Zealand, who had a five-man fast-bowling attack. That played a significant role in India losing that Test. Two years later, India play Australia in another WTC final, again in England. Except the conditions at The Oval are forecast to be sunnier.
But India are once again confronted with the following vital selection questions.

KS Bharat or Ishan Kishan?

England is probably the most challenging place for a wicketkeeper as the Dukes ball wobbles and dips more than elsewhere, challenging them to make quick adjustments.
KS Bharat and Ishan Kishan have virtually no experience of playing in England. Bharat, though, played a first-class match against West Indies A on India A's tour of England in 2018, the same trip where Rishabh Pant made runs and found his way into the Indian team.
Bharat, who took Pant's position in the four-Test Border-Gavaskar Trophy, is still settling down in his role. Technically, he has a relatively safe pair of hands but remains work-in-progress.
Kishan, who was part of the squad for the home series against Australia, is more of an X-factor and India might look at him in the enforcer job Pant did. On the first day of training at The Oval on Sunday, Kishan had two long batting sessions but did not keep. Bharat, though, started by keeping wickets before having a batting stint.
Should India go for continuity and stick to Bharat? Or give Kishan a debut in a WTC final even though he has never played a first-class match in England? In fact, Kishan has only played four first-class matches since 2021: two in South Africa against South Africa A in November-December 2021 and two Ranji matches for Jharkhand last December. This is the dilemma for India.

Should India play one spinner or two?

The sunny forecast coupled with a dry surface, albeit with good bounce, is a recipe to include two specialist spinners alongside three fast bowlers. At the least, it is too tempting to not think of a second spinner.
However, a fresh pitch with no certainty of breaking as the Test progresses could mean the Indian think tank might want to field just one spinner alongside four fast bowlers, including a bowling allrounder.
If India do lean towards fielding two spinners - a combination they fielded against New Zealand in the 2021 final - R Ashwin will be the frontrunner. Ashwin is No. 1 on ICC's Test bowling rankings and behind Ravindra Jadeja in the allrounder's category. He has abundant experience of England conditions and will have fond memories of The Oval, where he recorded his best County figures of 6 for 27 in 2021 after turning up in a one-off match for Surrey to prepare for the England tour.
Ashwin, though, did not feature in the five-match Pataudi Trophy as India stuck to a 4-1 seam-bowling combination. But no one has a mental edge over Australia like Ashwin does and he shared the Player-of-the-Series award with Jadeja in the home series against Australia earlier this year.
Axar Patel is the other option, but he is too similar to Jadeja.

If it's a 3-2 combo, who is the third seamer?

The options are (in no particular order): Shardul Thakur, Umesh Yadav and Jaydev Unadkat. At India's first training session on Sunday, Thakur and Unadkat bowled and batted while Umesh bowled towards the second half of the training session.
Umesh, who sat out the second half of IPL 2023 because of a hamstring injury, was the catalyst in the 2021 Oval Test when India took the series lead. Pace, reverse swing, creating pressure for his bowling partners - Umesh knows how to do that.
Thakur's advantage is that he offers batting depth alongside the ability to pick up wickets with his swing, cutters and good short ball. However, Thakur's last Test was the one-off match at Edgbaston last year and he is also coming out of a weak IPL with Kolkata Knight Riders.
Do not be surprised that Unadkat is in the mix. While he was ruled out of the IPL 2023 after a freak injury while bowling in the nets for Lucknow Super Giants, Unadkat has abundant experience bowling on slow, dry surfaces, which is what Indian pitches usually are like. Unadkat, who is the only left-arm quick in the India squad, offsets the lack of pace by bowling the heavy ball and hard lengths along with the ability to move the ball a little after pitching to surprise the batter.
And, in case India opt for a 4-1 combination, two of these three seamers will be again in contention.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo