India announced a strong 20-member squad for the final of the World Test Championship against New Zealand which gets underway at The Rose Bowl, Southampton from the 18th to the 23rd of June. There were a few surprise exclusions including two big ones - Prithvi Shaw and Hardik Pandya. Hardik adds balance to the side especially in overseas conditions but with the all-rounder not in a position to bowl, the selectors were forced to drop him from the contingent.
This throws up an interesting question on the balance of the XI India will field in Southampton. Will they field an extra batsman at number 6 or play Ravindra Jadeja as the all-rounder in place of Hardik? Also, will India include a second specialist spinner in R Ashwin or go with four seamers? Let us attempt to answer these questions and look at India’s best XI for the mega final.
Gill Will Partner Rohit Despite Poor Form
Rohit Sharma is a given as one of the openers for India, even in England. Rohit was in good form in Australia and magnificent touch in the home series against England. His 161 in Chennai is considered to be one of the greatest hundreds by an Indian batsman at home in Test cricket. Rohit has tasted phenomenal success as Test opener since he was moved to the position in 2019. He has scored 1030 runs in 11 Tests (17 innings) at an average of 64.37 and strike rate of 64.49 including four hundreds (which includes a double ton). He might be susceptible against the new ball in swinging conditions in England but is the best bet for India at the top of the order with the ability to score big at quick pace.
The real question is who should partner Rohit at the top of the order for India?
Shubman Gill impressed in his debut series in Australia and in all likelihood will get the nod ahead of the two other openers in the squad - Mayank Agarwal and KL Rahul. Gill had time to play his shots and was comfortable against genuine pace. He also displayed exquisite timing and scored his runs at a fluent pace. However, the stylish right-hander had a sudden loss of form against England and could muster a total of just 119 runs in 7 innings with a solitary fifty. Gill was also in poor form as an opener for KKR in IPL 2021 where he scored just 132 runs in 7 matches at a paltry strike rate of 117.85.
Mayank Agarwal has a batting average of 45.73 in 14 Tests and has already recorded three hundreds and 4 fifties in the format. He was moved to the middle order for the Gabba Test after failing as opener in the first couple of matches but subsequently did not get a game in the home series against England.
Purely on form and record, Agarwal might be a better option than Gill to partner Rohit but given the talent and potential offered by the latter including what he displayed Down Under, the 21-year old from Punjab will start in the XI.
Rahane Needs To Be More Consistent
Number 3, 4 and 5 need no discussion. Skipper Virat Kohli was in scintillating form the last time India toured England in 2018 and was the top-scorer of the series with 593 runs in 5 Tests including two hundreds and three fifties.
There is some concern regarding the numbers of Ajinkya Rahane in Test cricket since 2020. He has aggregated 471 runs in 18 innings at an average of 27.7 and barring his exceptional hundred at the MCG and 67 against England in Chennai, there is not much to show for. However, Kohli has given enough indications on how according to him Rahane is an integral part of the Test XI.
Pant At Number 6 & Jadeja At Number 7; No Place For Vihari
Rishabh Pant’s brilliant run in Test cricket in Australia and the home series against England and the comeback of Ravindra Jadeja the batsman means that India do not need to include a specialist batsmen at number 6. Hanuma Vihari, who impressed with his temperament Down Under will be the unlucky one to miss out. Pant has a batting average of 45.26 in 20 Tests and scores his runs at a high strike rate of 71.47. His exploits include three hundreds and six fifties. He produced high impact performances in Sydney and Brisbane before getting a score in the 90s and a hundred against England.
Since his impressive show with the bat at The Oval in September, 2018, Jadeja has transformed as a batsman across formats - he has scored 758 runs in 15 Tests at an average of 58.3 including a maiden hundred and 7 fifties in this period.
An in-form Pant and Jadeja in the lower-order mean that India will have a departure in their team structure. Instead of playing six specialist batsmen, which has been the norm overseas, they can go in with 5 which gives them the chance to play the extra spinner.
Ashwin To Play As The Second Specialist Spinner
R Ashwin - one of the greatest spinners in Test cricket history, has been India’s second choice tweaker when playing away from home especially in SENA countries. But, given his form with the ball (and new found confidence with the bat too) it is almost impossible to drop the off-spinner from the XI. Ashwin was the leading wicket-taker in the home series against England with 32 wickets in 4 Tests.
Southampton is the most conducive to spin bowlers, in terms of taking wickets, amongst all grounds in England and that should also be a reason to include Ashwin in the XI. He picked three wickets when India played England at the venue in 2018 and interestingly, opened the bowling for them in the second innings (to counter the two left-handers).
Shami, Ishant & Bumrah As Pacers
Mohammed Shami is India’s leading wicket-taker amongst pacers since 2018 with 85 wickets in 23 Tests at a better strike rate then even Jasprit Bumrah. He will make a comeback into the Indian XI after missing most of the Australia and England series due to an injury in his forearm sustained during the Adelaide Test.
It is a tough choice between Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav. Both have excellent returns since 2018 and are amongst the best in the world in terms of bowling average and strike rate. While Yadav has picked 44 wickets in 12 Tests at 19.71 per wicket at a strike rate of 35.1, Sharma has returned with 77 wickets in 22 Tests at 19.72 per wicket at a strike rate of 43.
What tilts the balance in Sharma’s favour is is experience of playing in England - he has bagged 43 wickets in 12 matches in the country including a match-winning 7/74 at Lord’s in the second innings in 2014. Yadav, on the other hand, has just played one solitary Test in England and most of his recent success has come in India.
So, this will be India’s best XI to take on New Zealand in the final of the WTC in June in Southampton.
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) Ishant Sharma
10) Mohammed Shami
11) Jasprit Bumrah