India have other options as well, but at the moment it seems to be a direct fight between Hardik Pandya and Karun Nair for the injured Rohit Sharma’s spot in the playing XI.
Nair will be a like for like replacement at No 6. On the other hand, Pandya will provide India better balance as they go into the first Test against England starting on Wednesday.
The Karnataka batsman has warmed up to the team atmosphere in the last Test against New Zealand while Pandya has good exposure at international level, having played a lot of big ticket limited overs cricket.
Nair is a compact batsman with a penchant for big runs. He has already established himself at first-class level and has been in a rich vein of form in the Ranji Trophy. Pandya has been a surprise pick, mainly because of India’s desperation to have an all-rounder. Although he is only 16 first-class games old, the selectors are banking on the work junior coach Rahul Dravid had done to help him get his focus right.
At the team’s first net session on Sunday in preparation for the series, both had an equal opportunity to impress the team management in their bid to get a Test debut.
Pandya bowled a long spell to the top-order and worked up a good pace, testing even Virat Kohli. However, against batsmen of the ability of England skipper Alastair Cook and Joe Root, it is movement and the ability to bowl to a plan that will be the key.
Nair was given a late hit in the nets, but his confidence would have been boosted after being given throw downs by India coach Anil Kumble himself, before R Ashwin bowled a long spell to him.
It will be the nature of the surface at the Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium that will determine who gets his break in Test cricket. If India want to play a triple-spin attack, then Pandya may be preferred. If they go with a four-bowler combination, then they will need all to be specialists and Nair will be the frontrunner.
“We still haven’t figured out what combination to have. Everyone is available for selection. With Hardik being part of the squad, we have more options,” said Kumble, while highlighting the different strengths of the two players.
“We all understand the importance of a fifth bowler. If someone can bowl 140 kph and give you the option of batting really well lower down the order, that’s a great option to have,” Kumble said in support of Pandya while praising Karun’s domestic record. “Karun is certainly someone we have kept a close eye on and backed him for all the things he has done in domestic cricket.”