Antigua: A confident India under new coach Anil Kumble will be aiming to claim their third successive Test series when they take on an inexperienced West Indies side in the first game of the four-match Test series at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium on Thursday.
India had won both their previous series in the Caribbean with a 1-0 margin (2006 and 2011) and the upcoming four Tests will give the Virat Kohli-led young side a brilliant opportunity to better that record.
The Test will herald a new chapter in Indian cricket history as the team will take the field for the first time under new coach Kumble's guidance. More than three weeks have passed since the legendary leg-spinner assumed charge of the squad. Over this period, he has led the team through a preparatory camp and overseen two practice matches in St. Kitts last week.
He has introduced a new bonding spirit in the dressing room, and lifted morale through numerous group activities, thus ensuring a seamless transition from Ravi Shastri's tenure as team director.
As such the focus now completely shifts to the field, where the Indian players will try to put in action the plans laid out by their new coach. In doing so, skipper Virat Kohli will aim to complete a hat trick of
Also, Kohli will be hoping to win a third successive Test series, after beating Sri Lanka 2-1 away and South Africa 3-0 at home, both last year.
It will be easier said than done though. For, the slow pitches in the West Indies will test his team's resolve. The wickets laid out in St. Kitts for the two practice matches had good bounce, but slow turn for the spinners and very little by way of movement for the pacers.
It is expected to be a continuing trend though the four-Test series, although the pitch for this first Test seemed to throw up a surprise.
With two days to go, there were a green sprinkling of grass on the surface. It seemed nothing more than patches left to hold the pitch together for five days, and yet it could alter the Indian think-tank's plans regarding the first-choice eleven.
While 13 players had participated in each of the two tour matches, the composition used in both games indicated a five-bowler approach for the Tests.
Various members of the squad, as well as support staff, have pointed out in the build-up that even a little grass would not alter the slow nature of the wickets. Thus, it can be expected that Amit Mishra will be picked ahead of Stuart Binny, should Kohli opt for five bowlers.
At the same time, it remains to be seen who will partner Ishant Sharma, a fit-again Mohammad Shami, or Umesh Yadav, who did well against both Sri Lanka and South Africa in Shami's absence.
Selecting five bowlers also clears up the way for Rohit Sharma to be benched again, with the Mumbai batsman sitting out of the second warm-up match previously as well.
He was among five players who showed up for optional practice two days before the Test, the others being Binny, Mishra, Cheteshwar Pujara and KL Rahul. In a way, these are the names vying for two spots in the playing eleven.
While Mishra should edge out both Rohit and Binny, it will be a huge surprise if the team management considers replacing Pujara with Rahul at number three. A strong indicator of this is also seen in pairing of the two batsmen during net sessions, a new practice set in place by the new coaching regime.
While Pujara-Rahul were practicing together, Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan were busy in the adjacent nets.
Time and again, it has been proven that net practice isn't a firm indicator of team selection. Yet, statistics somehow unbalance this equation. For sample, ever since his return to number three in the four Tests against South Africa, Pujara only averaged 33.66 over six innings in home conditions.
While that was almost nine months ago, of-late Rahul has been in good form, getting runs at will in limited-overs while also scoring two half-centuries in the tour matches here. It begs the question, if the team management is desperate to field an in-form player.
While the visitors will be worrying about a problem of plenty, West Indies will be looking at their 13-man squad for some experience. Darren Bravo (42) and Marlon Samuels (64 Tests) have played 100-plus Tests between them, but both have been beset with lack of consistency at various points in their careers.
Skipper Jason Holder will be hoping his two senior-most batsmen can put their hand up, while he looks set to pick an inexperienced batting line-up comprising of Jermaine Blackwood (15 Tests) and Rajendra Chandrika (3 Tests).
Blackwood was impressive in both innings of the second practice match in St. Kitts, but facing the three Indian spinners bowling in tandem during a Test should be a different prospect. As such, much responsibility will lie on the shoulders of Bravo and Samuels, particularly the latter who is the most capped batsman on either side.
Only Ishant Sharma (68 Tests) has played more matches than him, and this is another area where team India holds the edge. Comparing the two bowling attacks, West Indies look set to field only one spinner in Devendra Bishoo, with fast bowler Shannon Gabriel looking for support from uncapped Miguel Cummins, Carlos Brathwaite and Holder himself.
Head-to-head then, the visitors hold the advantage. But it is no secret that West Indies play their best cricket when on the back-foot. And they will be raring to go at a venue dedicated to one of their all-time great cricketers.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), R Ashwin, Amit Mishra, Ravindra Jadeja, Stuart Binny, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohd. Shami, Shardul Thakur, Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma.
West Indies: Jason Holder (c), Kraigg Brathwaite, Rajendra Chandrika, Darren Bravo, Marlon Samuels, Jermaine Blackwood, Roston Chase, Leon Johnson, Shane Dowrich (wk), Devendra Bishoo, Carlos Brathwaite, Shannon Gabriel, Miguel Cummins.
Match starts at: 7.30 pm IST.
With PTI Inputs