When India won’t mind an examination

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If you are from the West Indian camp in India, which direction would you be looking at for inspiration? For it has been eons since the last time they stitched together a Test win on Indian soil. When they were here the last time for a similarly-sized Test series in 2013, they hardly achieved anything noteworthy that could permeate the narrative of an outgoing giant – Sachin Tendulkar, who retired from international cricket. That series barely lasted five days. If the tourists are battling a bruised history, the hosts, India are perplexed with their future. With their vision set on becoming the best travelling side, this two-match series at home presents the only opportunity to identify their arsenal for the Tour Down Under later this year.

What can we expect in the next two weeks from these two sides?
India:
Who are India’s openers?
Having sent an out-of-form Murali Vijay back home, midway through the England tour and now dropping his regular partner, Shikhar Dhawan, for the home series, the think-tank has suddenly placed all its faith on the young shoulders of KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw.
KL Rahul is the most experienced of the three at the top level and until the last series, had served only as a back-up opener. But here he’s as the first-choice opener. With a rearguard ton in the final, inconsequential Test in England, Rahul found some of his mojo back and will now look to make the most of the batting-friendly conditions at home. If he does, India will breathe lighter given a relatively more experienced man at the top of the lineup.
Mayank and Prithvi will do well to not look too far ahead of themselves. Both come in with the perfect appetite for runs, having scored them at the domestic and A level, and would know at the heart of heart that there couldn’t have been better conditions to start their careers in.
The greater challenge though, lies elsewhere. Will a two-Test series against the Windies, in their own backyard, give enough cues to zero down on their openers for the far more challenging Australia tour? While a good show will flatter, an iffy show can put them in a quandary.


Chance for Ravindra Jadeja to sharpen his swords as India’s all-rounder
India’s premier left-arm spin bowler, better called the spin-bowling all-rounder, Ravindra Jadeja, dusted his bat like it had been lying unused in some corner for a long time. He did so upon reaching his fifty before doing his usual sword celebration. He had remained unbeaten with an 86 as India lost the final Test of the series. Few weeks later, at the Asia Cup, he was quick to remind the press that it had been around 480 days since he last played an ODI for India. He celebrated that by picking up match-winning figures of 4 for 29. If someone told us during India’s long home season in 2016-2017 that Jadeja will slip so soon out of India’s radar, one would shoo him away.
But he has, with the fashionable seam-bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya pipping him to the post. It was only when Ashwin was out due to a sore thigh ahead of the final Test at the Oval, did Jadeja get a look-in. As important as it is for the young opening set to impress here, it is equally crucial for the southpaw too. With Hardik absent due to an acute lower back spasm, he will look to push the envelope as far as he can. The pitches in Rajkot and Hyderabad should aid him as well. It is a chance as good as any for him and he’d know it.


Windies:
It’s not just India who are confused with their opening pair
Windies too have struggled to find their ideal opening combination over the past one year. Although Kraigg Brathwaite has served as their constant, Kieran Powell has lost fair amount of confidence as his partner. However, it is this duo that has opened together the most in the past two years for Windies, barring the last five Tests (three against Sri Lanka and two against Bangladesh). During those five Tests, Powell had to move one down to accommodate the 36-year-old Devon Smith who was returning after a hiatus of three years. He had broken the door down with his 1095 runs in the Professional Cricket League Regional 4-Day Tournament, but his two fifties from five games shut the doors on him again, which brings the tourists back to Powell and Brathwaite. There’s another option in Sunil Ambris, who returned a swashbuckling hundred from No. 7 at the practice game against the Board Presidents XI in Vadodara. But he might have to wait for now.
Head coach Stuart Law isn’t shy to admit of his team’s opening conundrum.”We are seeing a pattern arise in the batting in the top 3-4 in world cricket, it’s quite difficult. There have been combinations that have been tried and tested but those have come up short [for us]. We are in a similar position but Kraigg Brathwaite and Kieran Powell have opened the batting plenty of times together, they both have been very good so far on this tour. They are looking in a very good head space now, their game looks pretty well rounded. We have got our methods and plans, it’s up to the players now to take that to the field. It’s all well and good in practice games, but the pressure of playing international cricket in front of fanatical crowd for the home team, against the World No. 1 team [is different],” Law said two days ahead of the opening Test in Rajkot.


After long, Windies are talking pace again
It’s been a while since the West Indian pacers have evoked awe. Coming on the back of one of the most successful home seasons, the fast bowling group of the tourists will be their first line of attack even on India’s placid wickets. Only two other home seasons had witnessed Windies pacers taking more wickets – 94 in 1985/86 and 91 in the 2002 season. This season, they have accounted for 84 of the 96 wickets to fall in the five Tests against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and riding on that form, Shannon Gabriel and Jason Holder – the two joint-highest wicket-takers this home season, will look to hurry the Indian batsmen with those extra yards of pace and bounce. They will miss Kemar Roach’s services badly in the Rajkot Test but India will do well not to overlook the promise of Keemo Paul and an uncapped Sherman Lewis.
“Kemar Roach is very experienced, has great skills and is one of our leaders in the group, he’s a big loss but having said that Shannon Gabriel has been outstanding in the last couple of Test matches in pretty similar conditions to be honest,” Law noted.
Lewis, especially, is only 22 but his impeccable knack of hitting the fuller lengths at sharp speeds, could prove to be a surprise factor for the Indian batsmen. During the two-day game at Vadodara, the right-arm quick consistently moved the ball and sucked the batsmen into lucrative drives, only to go past the outside edge. Mayank saw him during the opening burst and would have an observation or two to pass onto his teammates. He and Paul, unlike Gabriel, moved the ball during that game, and if given a chance, can prove to be an interesting study.


“We have got some bright fast bowling talent coming through, we have unearthed a couple of young kids which you will see through the ODI and T20I series as well, we have got two more here in Keemo Paul who’s been a part of our recent success and a young kid called Sherman Lewis. They have got some pace, swing the ball, they are young, keen to learn and sometimes better the unknown… going in with the unknown, the opposition don’t really understand what they are about. Hopefully they can come in and nick a few out early and put India under pressure,” Law acknowledged.
“These [Windies] players need to stand up and make their own destiny, create their own legacy. It’s very difficult living in the shadows of giants, these guys are taking great steps forward, there’s some world class talent, once they realise their potential, they would be names on tips of everyone’s tongue in the years to come.”
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Windies of 2018 would want to be so much more than the tourists they were in 2013, and India won’t mind being surprised for once. A good test will allow the hosts a good sample to judge from after all.

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