India keep their options open as Oval build-up intensifies

Mohammed Siraj and Umesh Yadav at India's training session
June 04, 2023

Two spinners and three fast bowlers? Or one spinner and four fast men including Shardul Thakur as bowling allrounder? Who should be wicketkeeper - the specialist KS Bharat or the X-factor player Ishan Kishan?

These are among the key questions that have confronted India since they announced their squad for the WTC final. If you were at The Oval on Sunday, two days before the Test billed as the Ultimate Test, you would have struggled to come away with any hints as to what combination India are leaning towards.

Two young men, good friends, both in their 20s, were in focus during India's first training session in London after almost a week in Arundel where the squad assembled in batches, with players joining at different times while the IPL concluded.

Shubman Gill and Kishan share a close bond off the field, and are not shy to rib each other with friendly banter. Gill needled Kishan as soon as he noticed the left-hander attempting to sweep a few times, albeit not convincingly. Kishan acknowledged that it was "not my shot."

Kishan, who is yet to make his Test debut, had two long batting sessions lasting close to three-quarters of an hour overall, but didn't practise his keeping. He also had a potential scare late in his second stint, taking a hit to his left forearm while trying to push at a delivery from left-arm quick Aniket Choudhary, one of India's back-up bowlers. Kishan instantly dropped his bat and walked out to get his forearm iced and wrapped.

It didn't appear to be a serious injury, as Kishan carried two bats comfortably in the hand of his injured arm post-training. A couple of hours later he and Gill walked onto what could potentially be the match pitch for a quick inspection.

Though he did not keep wickets, the ample batting time he got is an indicator that India are seriously considering Kishan. Former Australia captain Ricky Ponting said Kishan would feature in his India XI because the left-hander is an "X-factor player that you need when you might be pushing for a win in a Test match." Ponting felt that job had previously been done by Rishabh Pant, who is recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash last December.

Bharat, Kishan's direct competitor, started the training session with a spell of wicketkeeping drills on one of the practice strips on the main square and then returned to bat. Bharat replaced Pant for the four-Test home series against Australia in February-March and showed signs of being a talent who remains a work-in-progress both behind and in front of the stumps.

A major challenge for wicketkeepers in England is that the ball tends to wobble and dip after passing the stumps, so technique and positioning are key attributes while standing back to fast bowlers. Neither Bharat or Kishan have any international experience of keeping in England, though Bharat has kept wickets for India A in one match, against West Indies A in Beckenham in 2018.

Overall, the Indians turned up at full strength on a sunny Sunday. While they had their sweatshirt hoodies on in the morning, they discarded them when noon approached and The Oval shone under a clear blue sky.

Barring Ajinkya Rahane and the fast-bowling trio of Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj and Umesh Yadav, the rest of the Indian squad got through batting sessions.

Gill enjoyed his time in the sun. He has experience of long-format cricket in English conditions, having played two Tests there in 2021, including the previous WTC final in Southampton, as well as three County Championship games for Glamorgan in 2022, scoring 244 runs at an average of 61.00, his four innings including a 92 against Worcestershire and a century against Sussex. Incidentally, Gill batted at No. 3 in all four innings.

With KL Rahul injured, Gill is set to open in the WTC final alongside Rohit Sharma. Gill arrives in England on the back of stellar form across all international formats in 2023 and in the IPL. Gill, though, will be mindful both of Australia's bowling attack and the seamer-friendly conditions where the Dukes ball can surprise the best of batters. On Sunday, Gill spent considerable one-one-one time with batting coach Vikram Rathour.

A good opening partnership was a catalyst in India playing the dominant hand in the first four Tests of the 2021-22 Test series in England, with both Rohit and Rahul scoring big runs. Both scored match-winning hundreds, Rahul in the second Test at Lord's and Rohit in the fourth Test at The Oval.

Any apprehension India may have felt about playing in June (The Oval has hosted Test matches since 1880 but never one in June) would have been eased by the forecast for the coming week, promising sunny weather with temperatures ranging from the late teens to the early 20s Celsius. While there was no confirmation about which strip will be used for the match, it will be a fresh pitch with the surface likely to be dry,

All three Indian spinners bowled and batted on Sunday, suggesting both R Ashwin and Axar Patel were in contention for the second spinner's slot if India pick two slow bowlers. But if they field four seamers, India ensured Thakur, Jaydev Unadkat and Umesh were ready alongside the lead new-ball pair of Shami and Siraj.

Both Thakur and Unadkat bowled long spells and then had decent batting stints. Unadkat also received advice from head coach Rahul Dravid on his bat swing.

Having watched more than three hours of the training the impression you would walk way with was: India are keeping all their options open, but ready.

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