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India's selection puzzle for Rajkot: is there room for both Kuldeep and Axar?

Who goes out if Jadeja is fit to return, and will Rahul's unavailability have any bearing on the selection?

Kuldeep Yadav or Axar Patel? And is there a case for Kuldeep Yadav and Axar Patel? India's selectors and team management could spend a considerable length of time mulling over these questions in the lead-up to the third Test against England, which begins in Rajkot on Thursday. The issue is complicated by the fact that the selection isn't a straight shootout between like-for-like players, and will potentially be swayed by the news that KL Rahul has been ruled out. The selection of India's third spinner, in the end, is likely to hinge on three questions.

Will Jadeja be fit to start?

Injuries led Ravindra Jadeja and Rahul to miss the second Test in Visakhapatnam. While Rahul has been ruled out of the Rajkot Test, Jadeja's availability remains subject to clearing a fitness test.
If Jadeja is fit to play, he is expected to come back in for either Kuldeep or Axar, with Kuldeep perhaps likelier to keep his place given the wicket-taking threat he brings to India's attack, particularly when conditions are batting-friendly. He picked up three first-innings wickets in Visakhapatnam, and over the course of the match was also the most economical of India's spin trio, with his stump-to-stump line and wristspinner's threat of extra bounce limiting England's use of the sweep and reverse-sweep. He's also looked in better rhythm of late than Axar, whose wide release and skiddiness off the surface didn't quite make the impact India may have desired when they used him in an unbroken 14-over spell in the second innings, when the ball had begun to keep low frequently.
Since the start of 2023, Axar has taken just eight wickets in 11 Test innings at an average of 49.00 and a strike rate marginally below 100. He has averaged 56.71 with the bat in the same period, but India are likely to value Kuldeep's wicket-taking ability over Axar's all-round utility if Jadeja returns in Rajkot.
If Jadeja doesn't play, India's selection is simpler: both Kuldeep and Axar play alongside R Ashwin as they did in Visakhapatam.

How will Rajkot's pitch play?

Rajkot is reputed to be among the most batter-friendly venues in India, with one caveat. By nature, the SCA Stadium is full of runs - Cheteshwar Pujara and Jadeja have each made a triple-century here, and two double-hundreds apiece - but there have been times when the pressure of results has led Saurashtra, the home team, to prepare square turners. As a result, while there have been 20 first-class totals of 500 or more here, there have also been 20 all-out totals of 150 or less.
The last two first-class games at the SCA Stadium summed up its yin-and-yang nature: a drawn Ranji Trophy match in January featuring a Pujara double, and a Rest of India win over Saurashtra in the Irani Cup in October, when the third and fourth innings produced totals of 160 and 79.
Who should play in Rajkot?
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Axar Patel
Kuldeep Yadav
The venue has hosted two Tests so far: a high-scoring India-England draw in 2016 and an innings win for India over West Indies in 2019, when the hosts declared on 649 for 9. Wristspinnners made a significant impact in both Tests, with Adil Rashid picking up seven wickets in the 2016 game and Kuldeep bagging a second-innings five-for against West Indies.
The flatter the pitch is, the more India will value Kuldeep's bowling. A square turner, however, could make them think of picking Axar - either alongside or instead of Kuldeep.

Will Rahul's absence influence this selection?

If Rahul was fit, he would have replaced Shreyas Iyer, whom India have left out of their squad. Now that Rahul isn't available, though, India could end up with Rajat Patidar, who made his debut in Visakhapatnam, and one of Sarfaraz Khan or Devdutt Padikkal - both of whom are uncapped - at Nos. 4 and 5. While Jadeja, Ashwin and KS Bharat give India a good amount of depth on paper, the lack of experience above them and the concerns surrounding Bharat's form could lead India to look for ways to slot Axar into their XI.
The most defensive way to do this would be to leave Kuldeep out. The all-out aggressive option would be to pick Axar - or Washington Sundar - as a batting allrounder and play him ahead of Sarfaraz or Padikkal, but that wouldn't exactly address any concerns over depth.
A third way would be to play just one fast bowler in Jasprit Bumrah and surround him with four spin options. If reverse-swing comes into the picture as it did in Visakhapatnam, however, and the pitch doesn't break up a great deal over the first three days, India may want a second quick to share Bumrah's workload. The composition of their squad suggests India are looking to persist with the two-seamer combination, with Mohammed Siraj back after being rested for the second Test, Mukesh Kumar retained, and Akash Deep called up as an extra option.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo