After a space of 17 limited-over fixtures, only one of which India lost, India gear up for a return to the format they have been dominating the most over the last decade. Virat Kohli's men have played seven matches as part of the ICC World Test Championship, two of which were played away from home, and won each of the contests - four of which were by an innings and the remaining three by a margin on 200-plus runs. But up next stands India's first crucial test in the championship where they play two matches in New Zealand. The visitors will do start as the favourites in the contest despite their history in the land (only one Test match won in New Zealand in the last 44 years), but the team management will face two big selection questions ahead of the series.
1. Shubman Gill or Prithvi Shaw: The home season of India's championship campaign last year saw the impressive return of Rohit Sharma as a Test player as the management embraced a new opening pair (Mayank Agarwal being the other) that amassed 415 runs in six innings at 69.16 with one century partnership. While New Zealand series was still a distant thought then, skipper Virat Kohli seemed quite impressed with the two. But Rohit's recent calf injury, which he incurred during the fifth T20I against New Zealand last month, cut short India's hope of continuing with the same pair.
Mayank will continue with his role despite his sluggish form in red-ball cricket this year. In the four Ranji Trophy innings he played after the Bangladesh Test, Mayank scored 8, 43, 0 and 34, averaging only 21.25 for Karnataka. He then picked up a pair for India A in the unofficial Test against New Zealand A in Christchurch and scored only one off the 13 balls he faced in the first innings of the warm-up game on Friday. In between the two matches, he scored 32, 3 and 1 in the ODI series against the Black Caps. Despite the numbers, Mayank will start as the first-choice opener given the bulk of runs he scored in the format since his debut in the Boxing Day Test in Australia.
Partnering him in the middle will be one between Gill and Prithvi, both of whose career took off from the 2018 U19 World Cup and made their international debut in a space of just four months. Prithvi made his debut for India in the West Indies Test series at home where he scored a century on debut. His performance sealed his spot for the Australia tour, but was sidelined with an injury. Prithvi has been in a decent form in red-ball cricket, scoring 332 runs for Mumbai in five Ranji Trophy innings at 66.40 which includes a double ton against Baroda. However, he failed to get off the mark in the first innings of the warm-up game in New Zealand on Friday.
Gill made his debut in the ODI format last year against the same opponent, but failed to leave an impression. Gill was not recalled for any format even after World Cup 2019, but he kept knocking the selectors' door with impressive domestic performances. He scored 728 runs for Punjab in 2018/29 season at 104 with two centuries and four fifties. In the present season, he scored 175 runs in four matches with a century against Vidarbha. And for India A, he scored 83, 204* and 136 against New Zealand A in the two unofficial Tests he played. However, like Prithvi, he too failed to get off the mark in the warm-up game on Friday.
With both the youngsters in top form, the team management will have a task cut out in picking between the two in-form batters. Although, Prithvi will have the edge given that he was sidelined from his opener's role owing to his injury.
2) 5 bowlers or 6 specialist batsmen? Ishant Sharma's fitness is still under deliberation, with the test slated to be held on February 15. If cleared, Ishant, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami will form the first-choice pace combination. In his absence, India are likely to go with Umesh Yadav. Navdeep Saini is the only other option India have. In the spin department, Ravindra Jadeja is expected to be India's primary choice ahead of Ravichandran Ashwin given his impressive contributions with the bat.
If India go with the strategy of six specialist batsmen, the one they usually prefer in overseas conditions, the aforementioned pacers and Jadeja will take over the bowling department.
However, New Zealand condition might force India to go with the five-bowler strategy. Unlike in most other countries, the third and fourth innings in New Zealand remain high scoring - second in the world after England with a combined average score of 233. Hence, India might look to build on a high total in the first half of the game on the virtue of six-batting options, or else aim for the workload in the second half of the game and pick five-bowling options.
It, therefore, boils down to - Hanuma Vihari, who recently scored a century on Friday in the warm-up game and three fifty-plus scores for India A in the unofficial Tests, or, the eighth-ranked Test bowler Ashwin, who is yet to play a Test match in New Zealand.