Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha, R Ashwin, Mohammed Shami – these are the absolute certainties in the India playing XI for the first Test match against New Zealand in Kanpur. The rest, though, is far from a foregone conclusion, even if there are a few more players who will expect to be named in the lineup on Thursday at the Green Park Stadium.
The fact that this will be India's 500th Test match means all 15 members of the squad will be keen to make it into the playing XI, but, there is only place for 11 players, leaving Kohli and Anil Kumble to make a few difficult decisions.
Let's go by the batting order:
Openers: Two of Murali Vijay, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan: A few months ago, leaving Vijay out of the Test lineup would have seemed ridiculous, considering he has been the team's most consistent batsmen over the past 18 months or so. However, with Rahul's emergence, and what an emergence it has been, and the fact that Kohli is a big fan of Dhawan and the left-hander's ability to "take the game away from the opposition in a session," as the captain put it, Vijay's place in the team is not as obvious as it might have been.
Yet, it would take a brave man not to choose Vijay, purely for the fact that he brings so much solidity to the top of the order. So, if Vijay is picked, then Rahul will fight it out with Dhawan for the second opener's place. Rahul was fantastic on the tour of the West Indies, notching a wonderful hundred, while he showed how good an all-round batsman he is becoming by making an impression in the T20s as well. He is India's in-form batsman at the moment, and should be the choice with Vijay. However, Kohli has backed Dhawan to the hilt in the past and present, and if that backing is going to stay in the future, remains to be seen.
Likely combination: Murali Vijay and KL Rahul.
No.3: Another position where Kohli will have a poser or two to ponder over. Cheteshwar Pujara has flattered to deceive over the past couple of years, after a rollicking start to his Test career, but he showed signs of his old form in the Duleep Trophy, where he scored a double century and a hundred in three innings. What works against Pujara, and to a certain extent Vijay as well, is that he is not a quintessential Kohli guy. The India Test captain is someone who values aggression and attacking play, and while Kohli will be well aware of the need for balance, if given a choice, the skipper, you feel, will always go for the match-winner over the steady hand.
This is where Rohit Sharma comes in. If Pujara has flattered to deceive over the past couple of years, Rohit has been an enigma wrapped in a riddle with a thick mystery coating, with a bit of mercurial quality as well, around it as far as Test cricket is concerned. For someone with so much talent, and someone who dominates white ball cricket, it is hard to fathom why Rohit struggles so much in Test match cricket. His technique might not be the best, but in modern day cricket, a lot of batsmen succeed, despite a suspect technique. The temperament for making big scores exists in limited-overs cricket, but when it comes to Test matches, that temperament goes on a vacation, into a far, far land, where the return flight will take until the end of the series to get back.
There is a chance for both Pujara and Rohit to play if Kohli decides to go with the extra batsman, like he did in the fourth Test against the West Indies, but that is unlikely. So, when it comes to the choice between Pujara and Rohit – and the problem is if Rohit is picked in a five-bowler playing XI, Kohli will have to bat at No.3, something he does not seem too keen to do at the moment – the former will probably get the nod for the first Test match.
No.4: Virat Kohli – no arguments there, unless (well, see above).
No.5: Ajinkya Rahane – simple.
No.6: Rohit Sharma or R Ashwin (depending on the five or six batsmen theory).
No.7: Wriddhiman Saha.
No.8: Ravindra Jadeja.
No.9: Amit Mishra.
No.10: Mohammed Shami.
No.11: Ishant Sharma or Bhuvneshwar Kumar – Assuming India go with three spinners, and the wicket in Kanpur has been tipped to be low and slow, there will be a place for only two fast bowlers – if three spinners play, Kohli should go with five bowlers, because the captain likes to have enough pace bowling resources at his disposal and that will only be possible with the extra bowler.
Shami showed in the Test series against the West Indies that he is the lead bowler when fit, so he should be a shoo-in. Ishant Sharma was not at his absolute best in the Caribbean, but his consistency and experience would have played a big factor. However, with the fast bowler out through Chikungunya, it means that place will now be decided between Bhuvneshwar and Umesh. The only reason Ishant's place might be under scrutiny is because of Bhuvneshewar's impact when he was given an opportunity in the last Test series. That match-winning spell in the third Test match against the West Indies was an absolute joy to watch, and it will be up to Kohli and Kumble to decide if the swing bowler can make that kind of impact on the Kanpur wicket. The advantage of Umesh is that he can reverse-swing the ball, and that could come into play on the dry Kanpur wicket.
If Kohli feels two spinners will do, though, both the fast bowlers should get an opportunity, unless, of course, that decision is made to pave the way for an extra batsman.
India expected playing XI: Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, R Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravindra Jadeja, Amit Mishra, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar.