India clash with New Zealand in the final of the World Test Championship starting in Southampton from the 18th of June. The local conditions and the weather and the nature of the pitch will play a huge part in dictating the outcome of the mega contest which also means that team selection will become significant and crucial. What should India’s combination be for the final? Should they play the extra batsman as has been their policy overseas? Or should they go in with the extra bowler? Also, is there place for both R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the XI?
Let us explore.
Rohit Sharma has been the best opener in the world in the inaugural World Test Championship with the third-best average of 64.37. He dominated his first series at the top of the order for India - against South Africa at home recording two hundreds and a double hundred. His highest impact performance came against England in Chennai when he counter-attacked with a brilliant 161 off just 231 deliveries to almost single-handedly change the course of the match and the series, when most other specialist batsmen had failed. Rohit was also the Player of the Series in the 2019 World Cup in England and will have experience of playing in those conditions across formats.
Shubman Gill will be the other opener for India and may be the only weak link in the entire batting line-up. Gill started his Test career with a bang with a few memorable performances in Australia but failed in 4 of the 7 innings at home against England. Albeit a different format, he was also in poor form for the Knight Riders in the 2021 IPL.
The stylish right-hander has the gift of timing but does not move his feet much and that could land him in trouble against the swinging ball in Southampton.
The Middle Order
Number 3-5 select themselves with Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane making up for a very experienced and high class middle order. Pujara produced a couple of defiant quintessential tough knocks in Australia - at the SCG and Gabba but lost his form a bit against England failing in the last four innings. He also did not have a great run in the English conditions in 2018 and would be looking to make amends this time around.
Virat Kohli was the Batsman of the Series in 2018 aggregating 593 runs in 10 innings with two hundreds and three fifties but has been in poor form with the bat, especially in Test cricket since late 2019. The Indian captain has not scored an international hundred since November, 2019 when he recorded 136 against Bangladesh in the Day and Night Test in Kolkata. He has scored just 288 runs in 12 innings (7 Tests) at an average of 24 with three fifties in the period failing completely in 8 of these 12 innings. India need the Kohli of 2018 at Southampton.
Ajinkya Rahane is an interesting case. He produced one of the greatest overseas hundreds by an Asian batsman inspiring India’s fightback at the MCG and a crucial 67 against England in the first innings of the second Test in Chennai. But with the exception of these two performances, the India number 5 has failed miserably in all the other innings since Christchurch 2020. Rahane has as many as 7 single-digit scores in 16 innings in this time-frame. Known to be an overseas specialist, India would hope that the veteran batsman can produce a gem in Southampton as well.
Pant and Jadeja’s Batting Form Means Ashwin Can Play As Second Spinner
Rishabh Pant has been in the form of his life since India’s tour Down Under in 2020-2021. After match-changing performances in Sydney and Brisbane, he was in devastating form in the home series against England too smashing a brilliant 101 off 118 balls taking India from 80 for 4 to above 350 in the fourth and final Test at Motera in Ahmedabad.
Pant provides the X-factor in the lower middle order and has the potential and ability to change the course of a match by scoring big runs at a high strike rate from under pressure situations.
Along with Pant, India’s lower-order has got a massive boost with the reincarnation of Ravindra Jadeja - the batsman. Since Oval, 2018, he has scored 758 runs in 15 matches (20 innings) at a stunning average of 58.3 - it is the second-highest batting average for an Indian batsman (min. 700 runs) in this time-frame only marginally behind Rohit Sharma. This means that Jadeja has a higher average in this period than Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane amongst others!
The great form with the bat of Pant and Jadeja means that India is likely to take a departure from their set combination of 6 specialist batsmen, wicket-keeper and 4 bowlers in SENA and instead go in with a more attacking 5+1+5 combination playing the extra bowler.
And in all likelihood, R Ashwin will be the extra bowler India play in the XI in Southampton. The off-spinner has transformed from a support act in SENA to a major wicket-taking bowler since the tour to South Africa in 2018. He has bagged 39 wickets in 11 Tests at an average of 29.97 and strike rate of 71.7 during this period. That is a stunning transformation from the average of 56.58 and strike rate of 104.2 in the period before.
He picked 4 wickets in the series opener in Birmingham in 2018 which included the wickets of Cook, Stokes, Buttler and Broad. Ashwin then reduced England to 39 for 3 in the second innings getting rid of Cook, Root and Jennings to end with 7 for the match - which remains his best performance in SENA. He also picked three wickets in Southampton and bowled as many as 37 overs in England’s second innings also sharing the new ball with Jasprit Bumrah - that was double the number of overs delivered by any other Indian bowler in the innings. He has also been in good form with the bat of late which adds depth to the Indian order.
Ishant Sharma Over Mohammed Siraj
Mohammed Shami has been India’s best fast bowler and the leader of the pack in the WTC. He is India’s joint-highest wicket-taker amongst fast bowlers in the competition with 36 wickets at an average of 19.77 and strike rate of 39.9. What will make Shami lethal in Southampton is his ability to reverse swing the old ball especially if the hot and dry conditions prevailing in England continue for the duration of the match. He is extremely accurate and has the best seam position in the world in Test cricket.
Jasprit Bumrah will share the new ball with Shami. He has not been at his destructive best of late but had a great start to his Test career bagging 83 wickets in 19 matches at an average of 22.1.
Mohammed Siraj impressed in Australia and was India’s highest wicket-taker in the absence of the quartet but Ishant Sharma with his experience and remarkable transformation should be the third pacer in the XI. Ishant has the experience of playing in 12 Tests in England in which he has picked 43 wickets at a strike rate of 61.3. He was unplayable in the series opener in Birmingham in 2018. He has also seen a sensational transformation in his Test career since 2018 and bagged 77 wickets in just 22 matches thereafter at a average of 19.72 and strike rate of 43 - both better than Bumrah and Shami!
India Likely Playing XI:
1. Rohit Sharma, 2. Shubman Gill, 3. Cheteshwar Pujara, 4. Virat Kohli, 5. Ajinkya Rahane, 6. Rishabh Pant, 7. Ravindra Jadeja, 8. R Ashwin, 9. Mohammed Shami, 10. Ishant Sharma, 11. Jasprit Bumrah
Henry Might Just Pip Jamieson in NZ XI
New Zealand have their top six sorted. Tom Latham and Devon Conway will open the innings with their playmaker captain Kane Williamson at number three. Conway had a great debut at Lord’s recording a double hundred and Latham has been the Mr Dependable for New Zealand at the top of the order.
Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls and BJ Watling complete the batting line-up.
Colin de Grandhomme’s experience and his ability to swing the ball with his gentle medium pace may give him the edge over the other all-rounder Daryl Mitchell.
New Zealand would want some variety in their attack and slow left-arm othodox Ajaz Patel is the best bet against the Indian line-up.
Tim Southee has been the best bowler in the WTC and along with Trent Boult will lead the attack with the new ball.
The choice for the third seamer will boil down to between Kyle Jamiseon and Matt Henry. The latter produced a Player of the Match performance at Edgbaston returning with six in the match and may just pip Jamieson for a spot in the XI. Jamieson has had a great start to his Test career 39 wickets in 7 matches and also troubled India on their tour to New Zealand in 2020. But Henry’s pace and ability to run through the opposition line-up may just give him the edge for Southampton.
New Zealand Likely Playing XI:
1. Devon Conway, 2. Tom Latham, 3. Kane Williamson, 4. Ross Taylor, 5. Henry Nicholls, 6. BJ Watling, 7. Colin de Grandhomme, 8. Ajaz Patel, 9. Tim Southee, 10. Matt Henry, 11. Trent Boult