When Sandeep Patil’s selection panel picked their last Test squad, India were about to embark on a 13-match long home season. It was a pretty simple task, for this young side has been closely knit over the past three years or so. And the team's progress showed in the way they cast New Zealand aside with ease, never being forced to move beyond third gear.
All they needed to do was to make a couple cuts from the previous selection, following the trend of carrying a lighter squad during home series. Stuart Binny and Shardul Thakur were left out, for obvious reasons. Even when Ishant Sharma was ruled out due to illness, there was no backup pacer drafted into the squad.
Then, the MSK Prasad-led selection panel had a choice to make when both KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan were ruled out owing to injuries. It was the first time the five new wise men earned their pay, and they made it count by bringing back Gautam Gambhir into the fold.
This decision raised more questions than answers. The previous regime had only looked at the future since the 2-1 home debacle against England in 2012. This is the reason why they had been able to glue this young unit together. Despite repeated calls to include some of the oldies, they persisted even in face of heavy defeats in England and Australia.
While Gambhir's first innings in Indore was one of determination, the second innings — a half-century with an injured shoulder — was a selfless act. India were cruising and he could have stonewalled his way to a half-century. Yet, he came out all guns blazing and got the run-rate up. For that knock alone, he should be in the squad for the England series.
Fitness and performance will also count, though. Neither Rahul nor Dhawan has played a game since their last appearances in Kanpur and Kolkata respectively. Word is that both aren’t completely fit yet. And even if they are physically fit, they need to get a match-fit certification to be able to make it to the squad.
Assuming both are able to do so, then who sits out? Surely, the Indian team cannot carry four openers in a home series, even if it is a five-Test rubber (the selectors are expected to name a squad for the first three Tests only). The axe falls on Dhawan in that case, for he is slowly receding in comparison to Rahul and Murali Vijay, particularly with Gambhir elevating himself in the backdrop of his injury.
The rest of the batting and bowling line-up picks itself, a straightforward job for the selectors. There are a few pointers though.
First, in case both Rahul and Dhawan are unavailable, then the selectors must decide if they need to pick an additional opener as Cheteshwar Pujara can also open if needed. Or, they could go in with Karun Nair as the back-up option.
This is where Yuvraj Singh could come in. Gambhir’s re-inclusion has handed old-timers a lifeline, especially ones who are in form. The left-hander has certainly made good use of domestic cricket with scores of 177, 76 and 260 in his last five First-Class innings. His name will certainly be up for discussion.
The one thing that the Prasad-led committee doesn’t have to worry about is Rohit Sharma, at least for the time being. His fifty in the Kanpur Test was sedate was like a face-saving knock after his rash stroke in the first innings. The second innings’ fifty in Kolkata was a gem though, showcasing completely what Rohit is capable of once he gets going. He saved that match for India, who were struggling at 106/6 at one stage. With three half-centuries in three Tests, this was his best showing in recent times, better even than the ensuing ODI series, where he only got going in the last match.
Second, Ishant is fit again. He played for Delhi against Karnataka and Odisha, picking five wickets in three innings, and as such will be a shoe-in for returning to the Indian squad. It will queer the pitch for Umesh Yadav a tad, as he will be expected to partner Mohammed Shami in the first Test at Rajkot. The big question is what happens if Virat Kohli faces a rank turner in this series, and wishes to play only one pacer. Who will he drop in that scenario? Who will be India’s lone, and lead, pacer then — Ishant or Shami?
The third pointer here is about the possibility of discussion over a second off-spinner in the squad. Jayant Yadav was drafted in ahead of the second Test in Kolkata, and while the media release said that he came in for Ishant, the skipper negated any such thoughts.
"He is in the side because we wanted an additional off-spinner. New Zealand have a few left-handers in their eleven and we might look to play two off-spinners," Virat Kohli had said ahead of the Eden Gardens’ Test.
England boast a similar line-up, and the fact that their batting runs deep will also be a consideration for the selectors. And it is only well known that Kohli likes to mix his playing combinations, depending upon the situation at hand, conditions on offer and the opposition of course.
So, if the selectors are asked for a fourth spinner, how will they accommodate him?
Expected squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, Gautam Gambhir, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Karun Nair, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Amit Mishra, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma.