India have form problems going into first Test (Column: Just Sport)
Indian cricketers have been in England for over a month, the senior team playing in the shorter formats and Rahul Dravid's 'A' squad helping out some seniors in getting a knock before the Test series. Yet there is no clarity on the ideal eleven for the first Test.
The problems for the Indian team management stem as much from uncertain form as the injuries to key bowlers. The form issues got magnified as the middle order batsmen failed to get going in the last two One-Day Internationals (ODI) after winning the first game to lose the series 1-2.
What must be worrying for captain Virat Kohli and team director Ravi Shastri is the ease with which English batsmen played the hitherto dreaded wrist spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yajuvendra Chahal after looking all at sea in the Twenty20 series and even in the first ODI which the Indians won with ease, by eight wickets.
As the team management pondered over the reasons for the sudden reversal of form, Mahendra Singh Dhoni took the match ball from the umpires when the players were returning to the pavilion, triggering a speculation that the former India captain may have played the last international for the country!
It turned out, as revealed by Shastri to put the speculation to rest, Dhoni wanted the bowling coach to see the wear and tear of the ball to make a realistic assessment of the pitch and ground condition while formulating the strategy for Tests.
India's biggest worry is whether they have the bowling to take 20 wickets in a Test like they did in all the three Tests in South Africa. They do not appear to have the potential wicket-takers with the new ball. They are handicapped by the absence of two of their key wicket-takers Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jaspirt Bumrah, both are nursing injuries.
Bumrah might recover in time for the second Test from his broken thumb he suffered in the first match in Ireland, but Bhuvneshwar's low back pain appears to be more serious.
On paper, the fast bowling still looks adequate with Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav being experienced enough to man the department. Shami hopefully has left his personal and fitness problems behind to be fresh enough to produce the form that made him the highest wicket-taker with 15 wickets in South Africa six months ago. The next best was 14 wickets of Bumrah ahead of Bhuvneshwar's 10 and Ishant's eight.
As for spin, which will have a greater role to play in the second half of the English summer, Kuldeep Yadav's chances of playing were dented after the way Joe Root went after him in the last two one-dayers. So, for the first Test at Birmingham Ravindra Jadeja should team up with Ravichandran Ashwin. The tour selectors will be in a dilemma whether they should prefer the accuracy of Jadeja to tighten things when they are not going their way or gamble with Kuldeep.
Kohli has a problem picking his five batsman with three openers looking as good or as uncertain. To retain the team balance, he will have to drop one of them and it will be a toss up between Rahul and Vijay, one oozing talent and the other with a proven record in overseas conditions.
There could be a possibility of Rahul coming in for Pujara but then the form of both has not been all that encouraging. It will be a defensive as well as unlikely move to play six batsmen plus Dinesh Karthik, dropping Hardik Pandya, who looks as good a batsman as any. Pandya has more often than not been among wickets in every format.
Kohli may even be tempted to push young Rishab Pant ahead of Karthik, but that may not happen despite the recommendation from Dravid about the 20-year-old's potential as a hard-hitting batsman. Dravid seriously feels that the Delhi lad has skills as well as temperament to succeed at the highest level.
Plus, he feels, Pant can read the match situation and bat accordingly as he has shown in the four-day matches for India A in England in the company of Vijay and Rahane in the team.
The batting has to come good unlike in South Africa where Bhuvneshwar ended up with the second best batting average of 33 behind Kohli.
All Indian theories will work only on dry and hard pitches, not on plenty of green and in heavy atmosphere as back up.
England have a settled and solid look with Alastair Cook, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler in tremendous batting nick and the bowling in the hands of old warhorses Jimmy Anderson, 36, and Stuart Broad, 32, who between them are closing in on thousand wickeets! The two have 957 wickets in 256 Tests, Anderson 540 and Broad 417. But both have injury issues and are going to test themselves in domestic games this week.
Whatever be the outcome, a Test series in England for India is lot more exciting than in any other country what with the diaspora cheering them to make them feel as if they are playing at home.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)