One day to go for the return to Tests for the men in blue and with Laxman gone, the Test team against New Zealand looks as follows:
MS Dhoni (capt/wk), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Subramaniam Badrinath, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane, R Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Umesh Yadav, Pragyan Ojhan, Piyush Chawla, Ishant Sharma.
Since Dravid and Laxman’s debut, there has been only a single instance in the last 16 years when India had been without the services of both – against South Africa at Nagpur in 2010, India tasted defeat by an innings and 6 runs. What happened only once in the past 16 years, is now a fact Indians will have to accept and live with. There’s no Rahul Dravid, and there’s no VVS Laxman, the enormity of the gap left behind will slowly dawn upon the fans.
The ground – Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium at Uppal, Hyderabad – has hosted only a single Test match till date – 2nd Test against New Zealand in 2010/11 series where Harbhajan Singh scored his maiden Test hundred. The pitch was predominantly flat and out of 28 wickets taken between the two sides, spinners narrowly won the battle with the pacers 15-13. Suresh Raina was used intermittently by Dhoni and was successful in the 2nd innings with 2 wickets to his name.
This time around, Dhoni is expected to go with the same mix of 7 batsmen and 4 bowlers with Raina turning over his arm if conditions are favorable. Though Subramaniam Badrinath makes a comeback into the side with Laxman’s retirement, it’s going to be him and talented Rahane who’ll be the batsmen missing the final XI most probably. Though Ishant Sharma is higher up the pecking order than Umesh Yadav, he is coming back from surgery and Yadav is match fit to gain that advantage over him and should open the attacking partnership with Zaheer Khan. Ashwin and Ojha will be hoping to continue in the same vein where they left the home season last year against West Indies.
The line-up thus, should be: Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar, Cheteshwar Pujara, MS Dhoni (capt/wk), Suresh Raina, R Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Umesh Yadav, Pragyan Ojha.
Sending in Virat Kohli at number 3 is a gamble, because in my opinion it should be Gambhir down at that position with Rahane opening with Sehwag and Kohli coming in at number 5. In that case, Suresh Raina will have to miss out with Pujara more deserving to hold his place. But irrespective of what my opinion is, it’s most likely thatit will be India’s trusted number 3 in shorter format who’ll be taking up the responsibility in the whites too.
M.S Dhoni will be wiser if he doesn’t miss this opportunity to give Rahane a better setting than the English summer to make a significant score. If Raina performs his role as a lower order batsman and part-time spinner to perfection, Gambhir/Sehwag can be dropped in a couple of matches to give Rahane a much needed chance. We don’t know for sure whether Sehwag has completely recovered from the lower-back injury which forced him to reach NCA a couple of days earlier than his teammates from Sri Lanka.
When it comes to bowling, Zaheer Khan didn’t play the T20 against SL and preferred to start the series against New Zealand afresh. Since the England debacle, he’s taken extra care of his body and will look to play the complete series. If he lasts the distance, it’s going to be a choice between Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav for the slot of the second pacer. Ishant has just recovered from the ankle injury which saw him missing from international stage since the Tests down under. Though he’s back, it’ll be Umesh Yadav who’ll claim a bigger stake, not by his performance since Ishant’s absence, but the fact that he’s in a better shape than Ishant who’s been selected despite not having a single competitive match under his belt after ‘full fitness’.
Despite selectors waking up to Piyush Chawla’s existence out of the blue without him having to poke them, it’ll have to be a freak injury to either Ashwin or Ojha or sheer distasteful selection by the captain, which will find him in the playing XI.
New Zealand are the perennial underachievers, striking the big nations down so seldom that it comes as a surprise each time. Australia learnt it the hard way last year at Hobart and indeed, India could have been at the receiving end at Hyderabad in 2010 when Chris Martin rubbed off the gloss from the famed Indian batting line-up. At 15-5, it was only Harbhajan Singh’s surprise century which saved India.
Doug Bracewell, Tim Southee, Chris Martin, Neil Wagner and off-spinner Jeetan Patel, who earned his recall with a county performance of 38 first-class wickets at 23.65, won’t be too easy to cope with. Indian batsmen are in for a test, not as severe as their recent outings offshore, but something to make sure they don’t take their eyes off the ball. A less threatening assembly of batsmen will have McCullum back at the top of the order where he made a double century in 2010 against India, and the thorn which irked India last time – Kane Williamson. He remains the only batsman to have scored a century for New Zealand this year.
For Suresh Raina, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Subramaniam Badrinath, this tour is a God-sent gift to have a chance to replace the immovable middle order of India of yore. Memories and nostalgia apart, it’s going to be an exciting preview of the times to come by in Indian cricket.
1st Test: India vs New Zealand at Hyderabad (Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium) on 23rd August 2012, starting at 09:30 hours IST.