Kolkata: How will the Indian batting order look in the final Test against New Zealand in Mumbai, scheduled to start on Friday? It seems to be the million dollar question which is overshadowing the speculation over how the Wankhede Stadium track behaves or the persistent Mumbai rains.
It’s only a two-Test home series and India were just one wicket away from setting up a 1-0 lead in Kanpur, and the only area of concern should have been whom would the skipper Virat Kohli replace as he comes back at number four after a break. It would be grossly unfair to make Shreyas Iyer sit in the dugout after a mature Test century on debut - followed by a resilient half-century under immense pressure.
Would Kohli then replace either Ajinkya Rahane or Cheteshwar Pujara, the two rocks of India’s Test middle order who have endured prolonged lean patches for comfort now. Rahane, who led in Kanpur Test, got a start in the first innings with 35 but failed at a crunch time in the second - while his average since 2020 had been 24.39. Pujara hasn’t acquitted much better during the same period ever since his epic effort Down Under during the series win in 2018-19 but there have been the odd efforts which should tilt the scales ever so slightly in his favour if a tough call has to be made between the two veterans.
Rahul Dravid, the head coach and a known backer of Rahane, feels that “it’s just a matter of an innings, a matter of a game where he can turn it around,” while Kohli prepared the ground for taking a few tough calls during his zoom interaction with the media on Thursday.
“You have to obviously understand the situation where the team is placed, you have to understand where the player stands, you have to understand the conditions and you have to communicate well. Not a difficult thing to do when there is collective trust in the team,” Kohli said. A job easier said than done if one knows how Indian cricket works - hence there is quite a possibility that the team management may look at a compromise formula to accommodate both the senior players ahead of the South Africa tour.
There is hence a possibility that India may bring about a change at the top with Mayank Agarwal, who has scored only 210 runs in the last two years at just 17.50, making way - handing Karnataka wicketkeeper-batsman K.S.Bharat a Test debut. The question mark over senior stumper Wriddhiman Saha’s fitness to keep throughout the match - despite his resilient batting effort of 61 in Kanpur - may open the doors for Bharat as it also frees up an extra batsman’s slot lower down the order.
There had been a suggestion in some quarters that India can open with Saha. but it would be unfair on the Bengal wicketkeeper - his fitness notwithstanding - as has never batted above No.5 in Tests, let alone open. Bharat, on the other hand, has opened in 77 of his 123 first class innings and also has a triple ton against his name. Given that Saha is now 37, it’s possibly time to groom a younger keeper after Rishabh Pant, who has been rested for both Tests.
Such a move may allow Iyer to bat at number six and allow India to play five bowlers like the first Test.
Kohli said the team management will discuss all options and work out various combinations, taking into account the weather conditions, before taking a final call on the batting as well as bowling combination for the second Test. Coming from Kohli, who has often surprised in the past with definitive answers on his playing XI, it seems they are still in pursuit of the right combination.
Catch the match
India vs New Zealand
Second Test, Wankhede Stadium (Mumbai)
Match starts from 8 am UAE.