England vs India, 1st Test: Five questions for Virat Kohli’s No 1 ranked India at Edgbaston

The marquee Test contest of the 2018 summer, India vs England, gets underway on Wednesday at Edgbaston, where visiting Indian teams have never tasted success. India, ranked No 1 in Tests, and led by Virat Kohli, enter the second phase of a major overseas tour – they lost 1-2 in South Africa earlier this year and play four Test in Australia starting December 6 – and have been depleted by injuries to two first-choice fast bowlers and their most reliable wicketkeeper.

READ: Play Kuldeep Yadav and Rishabh Pant at Edgbaston, heeds Dilip Vengsarkar

Here are five areas India need to address ahead of the Test series opener in Birmingham.

Who to open with? 

India’s opening pair for their last Test, against debutants Afghanistan in June, was Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan. For that one-off in Bengaluru, Cheteshwar Pujara dropped down a spot to the vacant No 4 – Kohli was rested – and KL Rahul batted at No 3. Vijay scored 105, Dhawan 107 off 96 balls and Rahul made 54 off 64.

Now rewind to India’s previous Test series, in South Africa. Dhawan lasted one Test, his technique against the short ball exposed once more. Vijay played all three Tests, but managed 102 runs with a best of 46. Rahul filled in as Dhawan’s replacement, but did not open in all four innings from which he made 30 runs with a best of 16.

READ: Virat Kohli’s landmark, 1000 for England, the Edgbaston fortress

Vijay is coming off a poor tour match for India A against England Lions and a solid half-century in the three-day tour game against Essex. Dhawan just bagged a pair against Essex, lasting four deliveries in two innings. In that same game, Rahul made 58 from No 6 and then was sent to open in the second innings and walk back with an unbeaten 36 to his name.

Pujara should rightfully take the No 3 spot, which leaves India to pick two from Dhawan, Vijay and Rahul.

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READ: Virat Kohli’s sternest challenge, as captain and batsman

4-1 or 3-2?

With Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah ruled out with injuries, the Indian team management has Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and Shardul Thakur as the fast men to pick from. Assuming that Hardik Pandya plays as the seam-bowling allrounder, India will have to choose between playing the more conservative and traditional option of four quicks and one spinner, or going in with three pace options and two spinners.

Ishant, the most capped of India’s Test squad, will slot in as the first pick given his experience of bowling in England – he played for Sussex this county season – and having taken three wickets against Essex. Umesh Yadav seems to have put behind him a poor ODI series against England with a fine outing of 18-8-35-4 against Essex. If India opt for three specialist bowlers, they have to pick from Mohammed Shami, who went wicketless at Chelmsford, or the uncapped Thakur.

Which gives us reason to believe that 3-2 is the way to go at Edgaston, where conditions appear rather dry given the heat wave that much of England has been reeling under.

How to optimise Kuldeep Yadav 

R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, India’s most successful Test spin-bowling pair of the last five years, face stiff competition from Kuldeep, just two Tests old, given the impact he has had against on this tour: 21 wickets an 11.57 and a strike-rate of 12.7, from 44.3 overs. Ashwin and Jadeja have poor bowling numbers in Tests on English soil, underlined by strike-rates of  71 and 104. It would be a bold move to drop one of your two most successful Indian spinners, even more so given the batting options each provides, but under Kohli it could prove the way forward. Given the batting options that Ashwin and Pandya provide, India could drop Jadeja and get in Kuldeep.

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Dinesh Karthik or Rishabh Pant?

Karthik kept wickets in Wriddhiman Saha’s absence during the two-day shellacking of Afghanistan in June, and was part of India’s limited-overs squad on tour of the United Kingdom. His most recent innings was a busy 82 against Essex, and given that Karthik has played three Tests in England, albeit in 2007, all signs are that he is the preferred pick for Edgbaston.

Karthik’s understudy for the Test series is Pant, but could Kohli and Ravi Shastri be tempted to throw him into the deep end next week? Pant is viewed as the future, and strong words from his India A coach Rahul Dravid regarding his temperament for four-day cricket could have tilted the scales in his favour. It would be a punt – excuse the pun, please – but one that would not be amiss under Kohli’s brand of leadership. None less than Dilip Vengsarkar, an astute reader of the game and former India captain and chief selector, have advocated that India should play Pant because of the certain je n’ai sais quoi he has about him.

The Kohli question

India’s Test captain is determined to correct his poor Test numbers in England (134 runs at 13.40 in five Tests). His limited-overs form on tour has been good (0, 9, 20*, 47, 43, 75, 45 and 71) but not of Kohli’s standard. The bowlers that had his number the most four summers ago, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, are likely to be running in at Kohli when he takes guard. Can they terrorise Kohli again? Or will a much-improved batsman approach them with a different mindset? This promises to be the tastiest subplot of what looks to be crackling summer of Test cricket.