The captain, who played just one Test in Australia before returning home, is expected to bat at his usual number four position, where he has scored more runs than all but one Indian cricketer – Sachin Tendulkar.
Kohli and the management have the option to pick from three opening batsmen – Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, and Mayank Agarwal – as the fourth, KL Rahul, may not be match-fit for the first Test. Sharma and Gill are likely to pick themselves, basis the former’s prolific record as an opener at home and the latter’s coming-of-age performance Down Under. Both, Sharma and Gill, are natural strikers of the ball and if they manage to score runs freely against England’s pace spearheads James Anderson and Stuart Broad, the hosts may bat the visitors out of every game. Agarwal, who has been a consistent performer since his debut in 2018, is woefully out of form.
Bringing up a discussion about who bats at number three is pointless. If you ask why, you haven’t been following Indian cricket for the past decade. Looking beyond Cheteshwar Pujara defies not just cricketing logic but also common sense.
Kohli comes in at number four, a position where he has scored 5,804 runs at an average of 59.22 in 104 innings. Only Tendulkar has more runs (13,492) for India in Tests at the same batting position. Kohli’s return to the team means vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane, one of the stars of the triumph in Australia, moves a position down to number five. Rahane has played the most at this position in Tests and especially on the slow and turning tracks in Chennai and Ahmedabad – each city will host two Tests – he will act as the perfect foil against the spinners and the old, reverse swinging ball.
With the top five as good as finalised, unless any of them get injured, Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri will have their work cut out to pick the rest.
India played Hanuma Vihari at number six in Australia, except for in the last Test when Agarwal replaced him. Vihari is out with a hamstring injury and Agarwal, with poor returns in his recent outings, is as good as not in contention.
Kohli may be tempted to pick Hardik Pandya, an additional batsman, if India decide to play only four bowlers. Pandya, who featured in the limited-overs leg of the Australia tour, hasn’t played Tests since 2018 with a back injury preventing him from bowling. It’s unclear whether Pandya is fit to bowl, and even if he is, his medium pace may not be too effective on pitches where India would rather pick a spinner who can bat.
It also seems unlikely that India will play only four bowlers as most of their recent Tests have featured the five batsmen-wicketkeeper-five bowlers combination, and it has yielded good results.
This means wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant is likely to bat at number six. His match-winning performance at Brisbane and the scintillating knock at Sydney have, at least for the time being, masked his shortcomings behind the stumps. Pant will be the first-choice keeper over Wriddhiman Saha.
Three of the five bowlers who are certain to play are India’s strike trio of off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, who will bat at number seven, and pacers Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah. Sharma is returning from a long injury layoff, while for the 17-Test-old Bumrah, the first match will be his Test debut in India.
That shifts the focus on five players – Kuldeep Yadav, Washington Sundar, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur, and Axar Patel – with two slots to fill.
If India decide to pick three pacers and two spinners – more likely to happen in Chennai – then Siraj would be a certainty after his performance in Australia, where he was the highest wicket-taker for India with 13 scalps in his debut series. Ishant, Siraj and Bumrah would make up numbers nine, 10 and 11.
The task of picking Ashwin’s spin partner and filling up the number eight slot will be the most difficult one for Kohli.
While there can’t be any doubts about off-spinner Sundar’s batting abilities after his heroics at the Gabba, left-arm spinner Axar – a like-for-like replacement for the injured Ravindra Jadeja – is a handy batsman too. Chinaman Yadav may be the least effective batsman of the three, but his experience works in his favour with Sundar having played just one Test and Axar none.
With bowling out the formidable English batting lineup, comprising Rory Burns, Root, Ben Stokes, and Jos Buttler, twice the only way to win, Kohli may pick Yadav over Sundar and Patel.
Thakur, despite his heroics with the ball and bat in Brisbane, should consider himself extremely unlucky, but also find solace in and be proud of the fact that he is part of a once-in-a-generation Indian team that has players on the bench who can, on any given day, take the field and outperform the first-choice playing XI.
Team India proved this in Australia and they will prove it again anywhere in the world. It’s a problem of plenty that we, the Indian fans, have waited for long to experience and are willing to happily live with.
P.S. You, too, can pick India’s playing XI for the first Test against England here: Pick Your Indian XI for the 1st Test Against England at Chennai