With the T20 series done and dusted, the focus now shifts to the India-New Zealand Test series. New Zealand beat India in the final of the World Test Championship to lift the title in the first cycle. They will again meet in the second Test Championship cycle with a two-Test series in India.
In that WTC final, New Zealand got their selections right and adapted to the conditions well to outclass India and lift the Trophy in Southampton. They applied themselves better and hit the right lines and lengths.
This time, things are different. Virat Kohli has been rested for the first Test after a hectic cricketing season that saw India crash out of the T20 World Cup group stage. Ajinkya Rahane will lead in the first Test while Kohli will be back for the second.
The likes of Rohit Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, too, have been rested, so while the usual suspects like Ashwin will look to continue his stupendous form, other players will also look to step up in the absence of big stars.
Here, we take a look at five India players to watch out for:
The last time India played a Test series (Against England in August-September), young Shubman Gill had sustained a serious shin injury that eventually kept him out of the entire series. He was ruled out of action for eight weeks, but came back strongly in the Indian Premier League (IPL), where he had scores of 51, 56 and 57 in some of the games in the second leg, showing glimpses that he had found his form back.
In the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy recently too, Shubman continued his good form with scores of 40 and 44 against Goa and Maharashtra respectively.
He will be looking to carry forward that momentum in the Tests but this time in probably a new role as he might be asked to bat in the middle-order, especially with the likes of Virat Kohli (First Test) and Rohit Sharma rested and Ajinkya Rahane leading the side in Kanpur. Mayank Agarwal and KL Rahul will likely open while Gill and Shreyas Iyer will vie for that No 4 spot for the first Test. Once Kohli comes back for the second Test, it will again be a tough task getting to that side.
While Shubman may still be a newbie to Test cricket, he certainly knows how to adapt to situations – be it an attractive 91 in Brisbane, or even a knock of 50 under pressure in Chennai.
While he has largely played as an opener in his short Test career so far, Shubman, who has amassed 414 runs from eight matches, with an average of 31.84, would be looking to impress in whatever chances he gets which might open up new routes of staying in the side amid intense competition for places.
Time and again, Ravichandran Ashwin has troubled opposition batters in Test matches, and this time that plotline will be no different.
His lethal variations and accuracy can give a hard time to the opposition, that along with his control makes him a dangerous proposition for the Kiwis.
He would riding high on confidence after doing well in the T20 World Cup and the recently concluded T20I series against New Zealand. Returning to India’s limited-overs side after four years, he impressed everyone with his guile and picked up six wickets from three matches at 10.50 and a brilliant economy rate of 5.25. He picked up three wickets from two matches in the T20I series against NZ again with a very good average of 14 and an economy rate of 5.25.
Ashwin’s last engagement in a Test for India came in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand in June, where he scalped two wickets apiece in each of the innings, but his omission from the playing XI throughout the Test series against England, despite being named in the squad angered many, including former England skipper Michael Vaughan, who termed the decision as ‘madness’.
However, Ashwin will be raring to go once again this time, and beware the BlackCaps, the last time Ashwin played a Test series on home soil, England, he scalped 32 wickets from four matches, with three five-wicket hauls. Ashwin was the chief tormenter of the Kiwis the last time they toured India in 2016. He scalped 27 wickets (most in the series) from six innings at 17.77 with three five-fors, including two ten-fors to earn the Man of the Series award.
It is needless to say Ashwin can read his own game very well, but he could face a stern Test against Ross Taylor in the Tests, with the latter saying he did not want to reveal secrets on tackling the spinner.
Things should, thus, make for an interesting turn of events when Ashwin is around.
With Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami sitting out of the New Zealand Test series following a busy cricketing season, this will be a perfect opportunity for Mohammed Siraj to shine and keep proving his worth and push for a permanent spot if given a chance. He will battle for that second seamer’s slot with Umesh Yadav and Prasidh Krishna.
Siraj has not played against New Zealand in a Test, having not been picked for the World Test Championship final in June, but his decent showing against England away from home earlier this year should hold him in good stead.
Siraj claimed two four-fers as he picked 14 wickets from four Tests against England. Both the four-fers came in that Lord’s Test, and with the ability to bowl sharp bouncers, in-dippers and long spells, he can create an impact in the Test series. He showed leadership qualities on the Australian tour last year. He is ready to take on the challenges. That attitude combined with his passion makes him one of the players to watch out for.
He has been criticised for his slow very often in the past, but Cheteshwar Pujara has often proved his worth with gritty and determined batting and by delivering under pressure situations. He was going through a tough time of late but he found some form in England with scores of 45, 91 and 61 in three of the four Tests. He would be looking to break the century duck at home. He hasn’t scored a ton in 17 innings on home soil.
With Mayank Agarwal likely to open with KL Rahul and Shubman Gill slotted in the middle-order, that would automatically make Pujara in his permanent number three spot, while Shreyas Iyer or Shubman Gill, who is yet to play a Test for India, could make way at number four.
Pujara has a decent record against the Kiwis in Tests, having scored 772 runs from 10 matches at an average of 42.88. He will be looking to get back to his best in this series and again prove the doubters wrong.
Of late, when it comes to one of the openers’ slot, it has been difficult to look beyond KL Rahul, be it in any format of the game. Rahul’s rise as an all-format cricketer has been gradual, but it is his impeccable batting technique that makes him stand apart from other batters.
Much like his fellow countrymen Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara, Rahul enjoyed a productive run in the England Tests, scoring 315 runs from four matches at an average of 39.38.
Rahul stole the show at Lord’s with his knock of 129, and with favourable home conditions, much of the same will be expected as he looks to take more responsibility at the top.
Rahul opened with Rohit Sharma in all of the Tests against England in the UK, but this time, he might have a different opening partner in Mayank Agarwal.
Both Rahul and Agarwal have shared good chemistry opening the batting for Punjab Kings and that will hold them in good stead. It will be a challenging prospect against the skillful Kiwi pacers in that first session but both the openers have been there and done that.
Mayank, too, has had an excellent run as an opener in Tests, scoring over 1000 runs from 14 matches at an average of 45. With the competition for the opening slot getting intense, he would be looking to make the most of the opportunity and stay in the reckoning.