CHENNAI: Rarely during their tenure, did the Virat Kohli-Ravi Shastri combine make long-term plans other than getting Rohit Sharma to open at home, keeping in mind the ICC Test Championship assignments in New Zealand and Australia. They were building up for this since October, but just a week away from the first Test in Wellington, they have to plan afresh. And they have just one warm-up game to test what works.
While Rohit’s calf injury has ruined Plan A, it has also opened the door for Shubman Gill, who looks certain to make his Test debut. News is, there is no guarantee that despite some heavy scoring in home conditions, Mayank Agarwal will be in the XI. The three-day fixture starting on Friday is a platform for India to choose between him and Prithvi Shaw.
Agarwal, who scored a double century in India’s last Test series against Bangladesh, would have been a sure starter. But since arriving in New Zealand with the India A team in the second week of January, the opener has not touched fifty in nine innings across all formats, including the ODIs.
That he collected a pair in an unofficial Test in Christchurch against New Zealand A has prompted the team management to keep options open. Though there were talks of Shaw and Agarwal being the favoured pair, Gill has made a strong case for himself with scores of 83, 204 not out and 136 in two unofficial Tests.
Only the second century came as an opener, but Gill’s temperament and rich vein of form haven’t gone unnoticed. The team management has been impressed by the way he has shaped up after becoming a part of the Test squad in the series against South Africa and Bangladesh.
Shaw didn’t play the first-class fixtures in New Zealand, but scored 150 in a practice match for India A. Since then, he has touched fifty only once in six innings to go with two forty-plus scores. With little to choose between Agarwal and Shaw, India will be using the tie to decide who partners Gill at the top as they are wary of New Zealand’s new-ball bowlers.
If Shaw and Agarwal don’t deliver in the practice fixture, India may also think of slotting Hanuma Vihari at the top, like they did in Melbourne in 2018. He has scored two fifties and a century in three innings on this tour for India A. One of the fifties came when he opened.
That India are exploring these options isn’t surprising because they are aware of what New Zealand bowlers can do in their own conditions. The seam attack of Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Neil Wagner, Matt Henry and Lockie Ferguson can not only make early inroads by pitching it up and bringing swing into the equation, but they also use the short ball to good effect.
Wagner, especially, has become an exponent of it, which is why India’s think-tank is keen on playing in-form batsmen at the top, rather than those who did well in the past. With regards to the bowling department, India are keeping a close watch on the workload of Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, as there are concerns over Ishant Sharma’s availability. The pacer is scheduled to undergo a fitness test on Saturday in Bengaluru. If he fails, India will play Umesh Yadav.