It has only been five months since the final of the inaugural edition of the ICC World Test Championship. India and New Zealand clashed at a neutral venue in Southampton’s Rose Bowl, where the Kiwis emerged victorious.
Owing to the packed schedule of modern-day cricket, that game already seems like a chapter from the history books. We have had half a season of Indian T20 League post that, then an ICC T20 World Cup where New Zealand defeated India again, and finally, a bilateral T20I series, where the Men in Blue registered a clean sweep against the Blackcaps.
The journey will come full circle when India will take on New Zealand for the first of a two-match Test series, at the Green Park in Kanpur. This will be the Blackcaps’ first series of the 2021-23 World Test Championship cycle, while India have already played four Test matches against England and have won two of them.
With an important away Test series coming up against South Africa, this series will help the newly-appointed Indian think tank understand the strengths and weaknesses of the squad. With some key players being unavailable due to multiple reasons, including skipper Virat Kohli for the first Test, Rahul Dravid looks set to try out a new combination.
Let us have a look at things to look forward to in this series:
Unforeseen circumstances will expose India’s foresightedness, or maybe, the lack of it
With Virat Kohli not being available for the first Test, it seemed certain that KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal will open the innings for India, with Shubman Gill possibly coming at number four – a place that could have been occupied by Hanuma Vihari, had the selectors not decided to include him India A squad for South Africa tour.
However, an unfortunate thigh strain has ruled Rahul out of the series, which has subsequently jeopardised India’s plans. Not only will Gill return to the opening slot, but Dravid and his assistants will also need to find a new number four or number five.
The two candidates fighting for that position, however, have not played the red-ball game for a while. The decision to include Shreyas Iyer in the first place surprised many, but he was unlikely to be handed a game had Rahul stayed fit.
Now that he is not, the Mumbai lad seems certain to get his debut cap. However, not only has Iyer never represented India in Tests, but he has also not played a Ranji trophy game for over 19 months.
Suryakumar Yadav, who was called up as Rahul’s replacement, is also not the first-choice red ball player. Hence, with all of Kohli, Sharma and Rahul unavailable, and with Vihari staying at Bloemfontein currently and not at Kanpur – alongside the likes of Abhimanyu Easwaran and Priyank Panchal, who have been around the periphery of the Indian Test side – it will be interesting to see which white-ball star gets the opportunity to shine in all whites. And provided the player exceeds expectations, it will also be interesting to see whether he gets the nod ahead of Vihari or not in the South Africa series.
Pujara-Rahane will have to justify their selection in the team
With the key batters missing, one would expect the experienced members of the team to step up and deliver. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have played a combined 168 Tests, but unfortunately for India, neither has looked reliable in the recent past.
Skipper Rahane’s case is more concerning for the team management. He scored 109 runs in the four Tests against England earlier this year, while Cheteshwar Pujara scored 227 runs. The duo will not get a better opportunity to justify their selection, as this series comes at what is a crucial juncture in their international careers.
Will India play a punt with the wicket-keeping slot?
With the team already lacking experience, Wriddhiman Saha is likely to be the preferred wicket-keeping choice for this series, given that Rishabh Pant is not in the squad. However, Dravid could also opt for Kona Srikar Bharat, who impressed many in the Indian T20 League earlier this year.
Srikar Bharat has been doing consistently well in the domestic circuit as well. In the 2019/20 Ranji Trophy, he scored 336 runs for Andhra at an average of 37.33. Saha, on the other hand, did not look assured in the recently-concluded Syed Mushtaq Ali, while his recent records in Test cricket is not up to the mark either. His last 30+ score came way back in 2017, while in his last 13 Test knocks, he has scored under 20 runs ten times.
The Kiwi perspective – Getting team combination right will be crucial
India have loads to ponder about ahead of the first match, but the New Zealand camp is not all that sorted either. The reigning champions of WTC have an appalling Test record on Indian soil, something they will want to change soon.
The key for the Kiwis will be getting their team combination right. It will be interesting to see whether Daryl Mitchell retains his opening slot after doing well in T20I cricket, or whether vice-captain Tom Blundell opens alongside Tom Latham.
Besides that, the Blackcaps will also need to chalk out a strategy for the bowling department. They have two frontline spinners in Ajaz Patel and William Somerville, while Tim Southee, Neil Wager and Kyle Jamieson comprise their pace battery.
Aside from them, Mitchell Santner and Rachin Ravindra will provide all-round options. New Zealand could either field all five frontline bowlers or might play Santner at someone’s expense. Whose? Gary Stead will answer soon.
VISIT OUR BLOG TO GET YOUR FIX FOR ALL OF THE MOST CURRENT CRICKET NEWS STORIES & FEATURES