India face several tough choices heading into the second Test against New Zealand in Mumbai, including choosing between Shreyas Iyer on the one side and Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara on the other.
After their hard-earned draw at Kanpur in which the last-wicket pair defied a world-class attack under fading light, New Zealand enter the second and final Test against India in Mumbai full of belief and with their eyes set on the glittering trophy, which few would have backed Kane Williamson’s side to lift at the end of the tour.
Only thrice have the Indians lost a Test series in their own backyard since the turn of the millennium — against South Africa (2-0) in 2000, Australia (2-1) in 2004 and England (2-1) and 2012-13. The Black Caps, the only team from the SENA quartet missing from this list, will not doubt be brimming with confidence and will hope to carry the momentum gained from the heroics in Kanpur into the second match that starts Friday at the Wankhede Stadium.
The second Test will bring to an end an extended tour of Asia that was supposed to begin with a limited-overs tour of Pakistan — which came to an abrupt and unpleasant end — and was followed by the T20 World Cup in which the Kiwis once again fell short in the final hurdle of an ICC white-ball event. The tour of India that followed right after hadn’t been going too good either with the visitors losing all three T20Is to an Indian side led by Rohit Sharma. The draw earlier this week, however, will have turned things around for the Black Caps and they will be full of hope of ending the tour on a high by becoming the first overseas side to win a Test series in India in nine years.
A win in Mumbai will also get New Zealand their first Test victory on Indian soil since 1988, and skipper Williamson and coach Gary Stead will hope to end that long wait for the elusive victory. And if they manage to win the Test, it will help them earn their first Test series win in India.
The biggest talking point from New Zealand’s perspective going into the second game would be the inclusion of Neil Wagner. Both Kyle Jamieson and Tim Southee were brilliant at the Green Park and ended up outperforming their spin department in conditions that weren’t exactly pace friendly.
Wagner’s exclusion from the Kanpur game certainly did raise eyebrows given the sheer talent that the left-arm pacer possesses in rattling opposition batters with his disconcerting bounce and his ability to bowl tireless spells that will help maintain pressure from one end. With the Wankhede Stadium known to be among the more seam-friendly wickets in India, the Kiwis will certainly want to bring Wagner on board. But that will have to be accompanied by the exclusion of one of either Ajaz Patel, Rachin Ravindra and Will Somerville. Five years ago, they went with the three-seamer formula in the Kolkata Test where they went with Wagner, Trent Boult and Matt Henry.
The selection headache though, is far more pronounced in the Indian camp heading into the second Test with Virat Kohli set to make his return into the Indian dressing room after skipping the T20I series and handing over the reins of the side to vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane for the Kanpur Test.
It is the familiar problem of plenty that the Indian team management once again finds itself facing after Shreyas Iyer, who was drafted into the XI as Virat’s replacement for the first Test, ended up scoring 105 and 65 on Test debut, his knocks saving the hosts from embarrassing collapses and helping them post a solid first innings total, and later, a challenging target.
Leaving Iyer out after a performance like that would be massively unfair on the Mumbai batsman, who finally lived his dream of donning the whites after a tough year in which he underwent shoulder surgery and ended up losing the Delhi Capitals captaincy to Rishabh Pant.
But for Kohli, head coach Rahul Dravid and the rest of the leadership group, the decision might down to choosing between Iyer and the veteran pair of Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara.
Both Rahane and Pujara have had an extended dry spell with the bat, and the knives were once again out after the duo failed to capitalise on their starts at Kanpur. Rahane (35 and 4) got off to an attacking start in the first innings, before a lapse in concentration resulted in the stand-in captain chopping the ball onto his stumps. In the second essay, he fell victim to a delivery that straightened along off and trapped him leg-before for a single-digit score, leading many on social media to believe he might have played his last Test innings.
Pujara, on the other hand, chose to grind the opposition bowlers out in the first innings, and was a lot more attacking in the second essay when the heat was on on the Saurashtra batter. Unfortunately for him, scores of 26 and 22 do you no good when the team is repeatedly finding itself in difficult positions, only to be saved by the middle and lower order, as well as the sheer amount of talent waiting for their turn in the wings.
The low scores will have made Pujara and Rahane’s selection for the South Africa tour, if it goes ahead, very difficult but it remains to be seen if the axe falls on them even earlier. The only other way the hosts can include Iyer while giving Rahane and Pujara another shot at redemption is to bench one of the two openers, or playing a bowler short and sending Iyer out at a lower position, all of which seem a bit improbable.
“Someone like Shreyas comes in, gets a hundred and follows it up with a fifty, and that's fabulous. But sometimes you also have to go in with combinations that suit that particular wicket,” India bowling coach Paras Mhambrey said in the press interaction ahead of the Mumbai Test.
As for the wicketkeeper’s slot, it all depends on Wriddhiman Saha’s neck and whether it has healed in time before play begins on Friday morning. Saha will feel gutted to miss the second game after producing a gritty fifty while battling neck pain on the fourth day at Kanpur, but his exclusion could help the Indians discover a viable backup to Rishabh Pant in Tests in Srikar Bharat, who was impressive with the gloves at the Green Park. In the Andhra native, the team also have a utility batting option both for the middle order as well as as an opener — a position he has batted in in the domestic circuit.
The fierce contest produced by the two finalists of the inaugural World Test Championship however, could be neutralised by fickle conditions. If it was the poor light in the final session at Kanpur that cost a few overs of play every day, it is the Mumbai rain making a rare December appearance that threatens to spoil proceedings, or at the very least delay the start. As far as the weather forecast is concerned, there is a 40 percent chance of rain on Day 1, with a much higher forecast for the previous day, though it gradually decreases from there, and is expected to be “mainly sunny” in the final couple of days.
India: Shubman Gill, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane(c), Shreyas Iyer, Wriddhiman Saha(w), Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Siraj, Umesh Yadav, Prasidh Krishna, Suryakumar Yadav, Srikar Bharat, Jayant Yadav.
New Zealand: Tom Latham, Will Young, Kane Williamson(c), Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, Tom Blundell(w), Mitchell Santner, Kyle Jamieson, Tim Southee, Ajaz Patel, William Somerville, Neil Wagner, Glenn Phillips, Daryl Mitchell, Rachin Ravindra.
Venue: Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai.
Time: 9.30 am IST (9 am toss on Day 1).
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Pakistan vs New Zealand limited-overs series has been pushed back by one day and will now start in Lahore on April 14 instead of Karachi.
Iyer has been ruled out of the Australia series due to a lower back injury and he might be out for an indefinite period. With an average of 46 plus and a strike of nearly 97, Iyer has been an indispensable part of the ODI set-up
Besides the upcoming three-match ODI series against Australia, Iyer could also miss the IPL for Kolkata Knight Riders, a franchise he leads in the cash-rich league.