Now that India have announced their squad of 15 players for the World Test Championship (WTC) final against New Zealand, discussions have intensified about who should make the XI for the match starting on Friday in Southampton, England.

The omission of Mayank Agarwal and KL Rahul from the 15 means it is now likely that Indian cricket team will open the batting with Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill. 

Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane are certainties at Nos. 3, 4 and 5. Further, Rishabh Pant is also expected to don the keeping gloves ahead of Wriddhiman Saha.

That leaves the composition of the bowling attack as the biggest variable at the moment. Fast bowlers Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah are more or less sure to play, as is Ravichandran Ashwin as the lead spinner.

This means a couple of spots in India’s playing XI for the WTC final are still up for grabs. There have been reports that the team management is keen to get Mohammed Siraj in for the WTC final, and that Ishant Sharma is no longer guaranteed a spot.

Mohammad Siraj vs Ishant Sharma

Now Mohammed Siraj surely has an outstanding first-class record and had also taken a five-wicket haul in the Brisbane Test against Australia in January. He also has a slightly better first-class average when dismissing left-handers – 21.63 – compared to Ishant’s 24.36. It can also be argued that Siraj brings more variety to the pace attack, in that he is more of a release-and-swing bowler than Ishant, Shami and Bumrah, all of whom are more of the hit-the-deck type.

Ishant Sharma has also been breaking down more and more of late, as the workload of years of Test cricket has started taking its toll. There is probably little chance of him being able to pull through all the five Tests against England in August and September.

However, when it comes to as big an occasion as the WTC final, who would you rather have in your XI: a veteran with the experience of 101 Tests or a five-Test old rookie?

Further, as Ishant Sharma has matured over the years, his record in England has got better and better. He averaged 27.21 in the 2014 series and 24.27 on the 2018 tour, and no Indian bowler has taken more wickets (43) than him in England.

Ravindra Jadeja vs Hanuma Vihari

This leaves only the final spot to be taken. The Rose Bowl pitch does have a reputation for taking spin later in the game if the weather remains sunny. It was Moeen Ali’s off-spin that had sent India crashing to a series defeat in 2018 against England here. That was in the first week of September, though, and we are in mid-June now, when the weather is usually wetter and the pitches fresher.

Southampton has had warm weather in recent days but rain is forecast on five of the six days designated for the WTC final. The maximum temperature is not expected to touch even 20 degrees. Such match-day conditions do not demand the inclusion of a second spinner. However, the pitch would surely have taken some baking in the sun leading up to the game.

It will be a tricky decision to make: whether to play Ravindra Jadeja ahead of Hanuma Vihari, who will be the sixth batsman and part-time off-spinner, leaving the bowling a bit thin. Knowing Virat Kohli, he will rather strengthen the bowling than the batting. Jadeja’s chances do appear brighter, and he and Ashwin will provide some batting depth for sure.

A left-field decision would be to play four specialist fast bowlers in Ishant, Shami, Bumrah and Siraj plus Ashwin as the lone spinner. India’s long tail will start at No 8 in that case, and increase the batting pressure on Pant and Ashwin; it is a risky call, but will also mean a fresher and more varied pace attack in what are likely to be helpful conditions.

India’s 15-member squad for WTC final: Virat Kohli (captain), Ajinkya Rahane (vice-captain), Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant (wicket-keeper), Wriddhiman Saha (wicket-keeper), R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav

Featured photo: DAVID GRAY / Randy Brooks / William WEST /Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP