This week the Indian selectors will pick the squads for the Australian tour. The meeting will be the debut for two selectors on the panel including its chairman Sunil Joshi, the former India left-arm spinner, who joined the panel along with former India fast bowler Harvinder Singh in March.
The Australian series is the first bilateral engagement for Virat Kohli’s side since March when the home ODI series against South Africa had to be abruptly halted as tremors of the Covid-19 pandemic shook the world.
The tour will stretch into 2021 and is scheduled to start in Sydney on November 26 with three T20s, followed by three ODIs in early December followed by the four-Test Border-Gavaskar Trophy starting with a day-night Test in Adelaide from December 17. The tour will end on January 19 with final Test in Brisbane.
Keeping in mind the travel guidelines and restrictions owing to the pandemic, it is understood the selection panel will pick a larger contingent in the range of minimum 30 players. This will also include some players who will feature among the reserves to help with the training in the absence of local net bowlers.
Following are the big questions that Joshi’s panel are likely to deliberate on at the meeting which would also be attended by Kohli virtually.
Shaw, Gill, Rahul – who should be the third opener?
In New Zealand Rohit Sharma was absent from the Test leg, forced to return home due a calf injury. In Australia Sharma will reunite with Mayank Agarwal, who made his debut in the Boxing Day Test in 2018-19 tour. Both Sharma and Agarwal opened for India during the home season last year spanning five Tests.
Agarwal played in the Australia series two years back only because Prithvi Shaw picked up a freak injury in the field in a warm-up match. Agarwal’s opening partner in the Melbourne and Sydney Tests was Hanuma Vihari, who had never done the job, but was promoted after M Vijay and KL Rahul had failed in the first two Tests.
India would want a third specialist opener especially in the absence of any first-class cricket for eight months. Shaw has been the team management’s preferred choice ever since he made a century on Test debut in 2018. He made a half century in second Test in New Zealand, but his indifferent IPL form including his technique against pure fast bowling has once again opened the room for debate.
As for Rahul, he remains the preferred man to take over from MS Dhoni in limited-overs cricket, which will be further enhanced after his spectacular form this IPL with Kings XI Punjab. But Rahul has struggled in red-ball cricket for a while before he was dropped from the Test team after the 2019 series in West Indies where he managed 101 runs in four innings with a highest of 44. Not only did Rahul lose his position to Sharma, but also was not included in the India A squad for the Test series against New Zealand A earlier this year.
Shubman Gill, who has struggled to up the ante opening for Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL, has been the best batsman for India A in the last two years. Since 2018 Gill has made 970 runs in eight unofficial Tests, including two double centuries. Some might argue all those runs came in the middle order, but Gill opened in the last first-class match he played, against New Zealand A this February, scoring 136. Gill’s talent and run-scoring was not lost upon the selectors who picked him as a back-up batsman for the home season in 2019-20 spanning five Tests.
So it is likely to be a toss-up between Shaw and Gill unless both are included with one among the reserves.
If Pandya doesn’t bowl, does he merit a place?
Hardik Pandya‘s last Test match was at The Oval in 2018. The last time Pandya bowled was in December 2018 in a Ranji Trophy match for Baroda. Last October after recurring back problems Pandya underwent a surgery. He has not bowled since.
Former India fast bowler Zaheer Khan, the team director at Mumbai Indians, the team Pandya plays for, said the allrounder was “very keen and wanting” to bowl, but it was important to “listen to his body” and not rush him back.
Pandya was the first successful allrounder to emerge and play for India in all formats since Irfan Pathan. Kohli has acknowledged he favours Pandya to play because he provides balance while allowing to tinker the XI based on the conditions. However, will the selectors risk including Pandya as an allrounder in the Test team with the T20 World Cup next October?
Can Pandya play as a specialist batsman?
Barely anyone in India can match Pandya in power hitting in the lower order. He also remains a superb fielder in the deep. But if Pandya is unable to bowl, can he play just as a specialist lower-order batsman in the T20Is and ODIs? Incidentally, Pandya was part of the squad in March for the home ODI series against South Africa which was postponed due to the pandemic after the first match which itself was washed out.
Can Patel’s IPL form get him a spot?
Axar Patel has played a key role in Delhi Capitals being among the top two teams this IPL. Along with his fellow Capitals team-mate R Ashwin, Patel has been among the best finger-spinners in the tournament with 8 wickets at a miserly economy of 5.78. Patel last played for India in a T20I in South Africa in 2018, and his last ODI came a year before that, in the home series against New Zealand.
However with Ravindra Jadeja showing poor form in IPL this time, will the selectors think of playing Patel as a bowling allrounder along with Washington Sundar?
What about Suryakumar Yadav?
One of the most consistent T20 batsmen in the last two IPL editions, Yadav missed out on the being part of the New Zealand T20I series earlier this year. However with Sharma picking up a sore hamstring this week, would the selectors be bold enough to pick a new opening batsman in Yadav for the T20I leg? Yadav is by no means a left-field choice: he has vast experience having batted in middle order at Knight Riders before being played in the top order at Mumbai. His other strength is he is an athletic fielder.