'Best in the world' test for Virat Kohli's India against England
- India vs England 1st Test preview: Bowlers who can bat at the “forefront” of Kohli’s plans in Chennai.
After an arduous Australia tour, made worse by sledging and off-field abuse, the buildup to India’s home assignment against England has been full of niceties. “The best in the world” – that’s the phrase repeated by several members of the England side while referring to the home team.
That’s how a comeback win in Australia is evaluated by India’s peers. This is the respect Virat Kohli, back from paternity leave, inherits from stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane going into the first Test in Chennai from Friday.
“He (Rahane) fulfilled his responsibility in Australia with flying colours. It was amazing to see how he led the team towards victory. Between me and Jinks, we have always loved batting with each other. It’s evident on the field and we do chat off the field. We have mutual respect,” Kohli said in a virtual pre-match conference on Thursday.
Respect Kohli has inherited, the team he has not. Injuries and a change in conditions will mean that the XI in the first of the four Tests will look significantly different from the side that won in Brisbane. Bowling combination, for one, will need a lot of deliberation.
India have won the last three Tests at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, with the most recent coming against England in 2016 when Karun Nair scored a triple century and the hosts recorded their highest Test innings score of 759/7. Since 2004, all the six Tests played here have gone on to the fifth day with spinners making a major impact. From Anil Kumble to Harbhajan Singh to Ravichandran Ashwin, Indian spinners have done well at the Chepauk.
Kohli hinted that the team will opt for five bowlers. “Bowling combination we will try to give as many options as possible, with guys who have the ability to contribute with the bat. That has been the pattern for success for us in home conditions over the last few years… That will be at the forefront of our plans,” Kohli said.
“The pitch is a normal Chepauk pitch. Quite a nice batting track, with spinners getting assistance eventually in the game. The track is good for fast bowlers to stay in the game too. So, it is a good cricketing wicket. We have seen in the past few matches here that the game went the distance. It was a hard grind. Something we as a team enjoy doing.”
Patel or Yadav
Ashwin is an automatic selection at his home ground but the one assisting him will make for an interesting call. Had Ravindra Jadeja been fit, he would have walked into the XI. But the left-arm spinner is recovering from a thumb surgery. Axar Patel is a like-for-like replacement especially because he has shown some effective batting skills in first-class (one ton and 13 half-centuries) cricket and the IPL. He is yet to play a Test though.
“The reason to bring in Axar was because we needed to bring in someone very similar to Jadeja’s skillsets which Axar brings in all three departments of the game,” Kohli said.
Kuldeep Yadav and Washington Sundar are the other spinners in the squad. After the 2018-19 tour of Australia, Yadav was termed by India coach Ravi Shastri as India’s “primary overseas spinner”. But a dip in form post that series has seen the Chinaman bowler not playing a Test since January 2019. Sundar is more in the Ashwin mould and the half-century in Brisbane puts him in a good place in Kohli’s scheme to play bowlers who can contribute with the bat.
If batting ability does decide the bowling combination, Yadav might miss out again. Kohli though said Yadav has improved a lot. “It’s a delicate balance that you need to have. In terms of understanding what the team goals are and at the same time communicating to (the) individual as to what are the team’s plans and where do they feature. Someone like Kuldeep has not had much in the longest format for a while,” Kohli said.
“Now that the home season starts, he will in the scheme of things. He has lot of skills. I see that his bowling is much more improved now. These guys are young. These are the people who will take the team forward.”
In the pace department, Jasprit Bumrah is set for his home debut after playing 17 Tests. Mohammed Siraj, India’s highest wicket-taker in the Australia tour, is vying for the other spot along with the veteran Ishant Sharma who is three short of 100 Tests and missed the Australia tour due to injury. Sharma played in last month’s T20 competition, the Syed Mustaq Ali Trophy, after recovering from a rib injury but his last Test was in February, 2020 against New Zealand.
On Thursday, England batting coach Jonathan Trott had spoken about scoring big in the first innings. On that front, despite the presence of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer along with spin duo Dom Bess and Jack Leach, the Indian batting looks a settled unit with Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Kohli, Pujara and Rahane. And Rishabh Pant for whom, Kohli said, this would be a chance to build on the gains from Australia.
Root at No 3?
That can’t be said about England who are the only side to win a Test series in India in the last 15 years. Zak Crawley, who opened in Sri Lanka and was expected to bat at No. 3 in India, is out of the first two Tests with a wrist sprain. That could mean England captain Joe Root moving from his usual No. 4 slot to Crawley’s position in the batting order in his 100th Test.
Dom Sibley and Rory Burns are the likely openers and Crawley absence might see England playing two all-rounders in Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes. That would add solidity to an already solid middle-order which has Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler.