Either Hardik Pandya or Karun Nair could realise their dream of playing for India as the team girds up its loins for the first Test of the five-match series against England, set to start here at the Saurashtra Cricket Stadium from Wednesday. The fledgling Baroda all-rounder, Pandya, and Karnataka’s specialist middle-order batsman, Nair, came into Test reckoning after Rohit Sharma tore his right upper thigh muscle in the fifth and final one-day international against New Zealand.
With Rohit ruled out of action for at least 12 weeks, the No. 6 spot in the batting order is up for grabs and in normal circumstances, Nair would have been an unfussy swap. But the chairman of the senior national selection committee, M. S. K. Prasad, gave room for debate after he sang paeans about Pandya’s high-calibre performance with the ball and bat in the one-day internationals against New Zealand and a refreshing mellowing down in attitude.
The injury to Rohit was initially not thought to be crippling, but medical reports confirmed that the Mumbai middle-order batsman would have to undergo surgery and that he would be out of action for three months. Rohit had applied himself in an admirable manner against New Zealand in the Tests and turned out to be a crucial performer, scoring 238 runs in five innings in which he was unbeaten twice. It seemed that he had found his space in the long form of the game and it is this position that Nair would occupy in the event of him getting the nod.
The team’s coach Anil Kumble virtually endorsed Prasad’s views on Pandya during the media interaction last Sunday. But what is not known is if the Baroda all-rounder would be given the No. 6 position that links the middle-order and the high-end of the lower order that itself has the likes of Ravichandran Ashwin, who puts so much value on his wicket.
With just 16 first class matches behind him, Pandya lacks a substantial number of runs, the yardstick applied by the specialist batsmen themselves to impress the selectors and get their approval. In this context Pandya is extremely lucky, as in their time even someone like Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman had to prove their worth with heavy scores. It is widely speculated that it was Dravid (the coach of the India `A’ team in Australia recently) who issued the excellence certificate to Pandya and with Prasad being present in Australia for the `A’ series that India `A’ won, the potential quotient of Pandya received a big boost. Prasad had no qualms in explaining why Pandya was preferred over either Stuart Binny or Rishi Dhawan.
While Pandya’s talent, seen in the Twenty20s and ODIs, has been recognised, Nair has been piling up runs in India’s domestic first class tournaments and in matches of high stakes like the Ranji Trophy final. Nair, who will turn 25 soon, came in for the injured Shikhar Dhawan after the second Test against New Zealand in Kolkata, and he was retained for the first two Tests against England. Kumble averred at the press conference that Nair would indeed get his chance and that the team would back him; the coach’s words only revealed that Nair would not be dropped without being given his due.
While the team would mull over the composition and hand over the first Test cap to either Pandya or Nair, there seems to be every possibility of leggie Amit Mishra being picked as the third spinner in the XI. Mishra had a long session with the bat in the final part of India’s preparation when the likes of Murali Vijay, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara ,Ajinkya Rahane and Wriddhiman Saha faced throwdowns from Kumble and Sanjay Bangar and also faced fast bowler Umesh Yadav, Pandya and the spinners.
The texture of the pitch has changed in a couple of days and everything was probably done to favour the home team’s spinners. But the likes of England off-spinner Moeen Ali and leg-spinner Adil Rashid, both of whom are looking forward to playing their first Test in India, could benefit too. They have been working with former Pakistani off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, the England team’s spin coach.
While India has delayed announcing matters related to selection, the England skipper Alastair Cook, who would be leading England for the record 55th time, said that the 19-year-old opening batsman Haseeb Hameed would make his Test debut. He will be Cook's 10th opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012. Ben Duckett would bat at No. 4 at the expense of Gary Ballance. Jos Buttler, who sparkled for Mumbai Indians in the IPL season this year, is likely to get the nod too.
Kohli has won the toss seven times on the trot and should he be lucky with the coin again, India would have the opportunity to take advantage of a wicket that may not cause alarms in the first two days.
India (from): Virat Kohli (captain), Murali Vijay, Gautam Gambhir, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Karun Nair, Ravichandran Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammad Shami, Amit Mishra, Hardik Pandya, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma and Jayant Yadav.
England (from): Alastair Cook (Captain), Haseeb Hameed, Joe Root, Ben Duckett, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Steve Finn, Jake Ball, Gareth Batty, Gary Ballance, Zafar Ansari and Chris Woakes.
Umpires: Kumar Dharmasena and Chris Gaffaney. Third umpire: Rod Tucker. Fourth umpire: O. Nandan. Match Referee: Ranjan Madugalle.
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