India are in a bit of a selection conundrum as they approach the 2-match Test series against New Zealand, the first between the two countries in five years.
While identifying the right personnel with the bat does not seem that much of an issue at the moment, it’s the bowling combination that nobody is really sure about and it’s going to be a headache for the team management as well.
Ishant Sharma, who is an automatic pick in the XI in Test match cricket for India, has not travelled with the team to New Zealand. When India play a warm up match against the New Zealand XI at Seddon Park, the tall pacer will undergo a fitness test at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) and only after he gets a go-ahead from there, his availability for the New Zealand Test series will be confirmed.
Mohammed Shami was rested for the last two games of the ODI series, despite the series being on the line. Virat Kohli had insisted that the reason why Shami was rested was because he’s a premier Test match bowler for India and India wanted him to be fresh for the Test series. Shami, hence, is a certainty to feature in the first Test match which will be played at the Basin Reserve, Wellington.
But, it’s the other two fast bowling slots which India are unsure about. Even if Ishant Sharma is declared fit, he won’t have any game-time under his belt ahead of the first Test match, as he won’t be participating in the warm-up match.
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As far as Jasprit Bumrah is concerned, he has played all the games India featured in since he has come back from his stress fracture and he has not looked to be bowling full throttle at all. While Bumrah has bowled a couple of good spells, he has been handled fairly easily by the batsmen, by and large.
Bumrah, under normal circumstances, is an automatic pick for India in all formats of the game, but given the fact that he has just returned from a stress fracture and has not found his rhythm, nobody knows if it’s sensible to put him into Test match cricket, for long spells at this moment in time.
It must also be kept in mind that Bumrah had to play a Ranji Trophy game before his comeback to the Indian team, but he requested to be allowed to skip that as he didn’t want too much stress on his body straightaway.
Stress fractures are really tricky and are not easy to recover from. And Bumrah suffered a stress fracture in his lower back, a part of his body which he uses more than the other fast bowlers because of the unconventionality of his bowling action. One of the reasons why Bumrah has not been to deliver the yorkers with precision since his comeback might be because he is not confident about his body at the moment, particularly his lower back.
Test match bowling is a bit different from bowling in white ball cricket. You don’t necessarily need to bowl too many yorkers in the longest format of the game. It’s more about hitting the length on a consistent basis and looking to move the ball a little bit both ways, with odd bouncers to keep the batsmen on the back-foot.
However, in Test match cricket, you need to bowl longer spells. Has Bumrah reached the fitness level where he can bowl more than 20 overs a day? It’s a question which only Bumrah or the Indian team management can answer.
But before putting Bumrah into a Test match, India will have to be 100% sure about it as he is going to be India’s main weapon in the T20 World Cup later this year and India wouldn’t want to risk his fitness at this stage.
A couple of other fast bowlers India have got are Umesh Yadav and Navdeep Saini. While Umesh is a quality Test match bowler, he is more of a swing bowler than a seam bowler.
The Test match pitches in New Zealand, in the recent times, have been unique. The curators leave a little bit of grass on the wicket because of which the ball seams for the first couple of days, however as the grass burns down, the pitch gets particularly flat and easy for batting, as it doesn’t break down.
Normally the pitches are expected to have some wear and tear from the third day onwards, but because of the fact that the surfaces in New Zealand are really hard and are held together by the grass, they don’t develop too much of wear and tear.
India will have to decide what combination they want to go with. Playing two spinners is out of the equation as the pitch at Basin Reserve is not expected to turn much. So India, either, will have to go with 6 specialist batsmen, the wicketkeeper, 3 fast bowlers and a spinner or 5 specialist batsmen, the wicketkeeper, 4 fast bowlers and a spinner.
In case, India decide to go with the second combination, the spinner will have to be able to bat in top 7 and Ravindra Jadeja might get the nod in that scenario. However, if India play 6 specialist batsmen, Ravichandran Ashwin might be preferred ahead of Jadeja, as he has the ability to make things happen on surfaces which don’t necessarily turn.
Ashwin is a classical off-spinner and is tall as well, which helps him extract extra bounce from surfaces which are hard. Jadeja, on the other hand, thrives more on his ability to bowl in the same channel for a long period of time and squeeze the batsman to a false stroke.
If Ishant Sharma doesn’t get fit, Navdeep Saini might be in line to make his Test debut in Wellington as the second or the third fast bowler. Saini hits the deck hard and almost always has his wrist right behind the ball. He ticks all the technical abilities required to move the ball off the surface. The fact that he has got a fair bit of pace as well is an added advantage.
However, because of the breeze in New Zealand, the ball also swings and it swings a considerable amount, on certain occasions. Umesh is India’s best component of swing bowling; however his control with his line in Test matches overseas hasn’t been great over the years.
As things stand at the moment, Mohammed Shami is the only sure starter for the Wellington Test match. India will keep an eye on Bumrah’s fitness in the warm-up match which will be played from 14th to 16th of February.