India at The Oval: Hanuma Vihari for Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja for R Ashwin?
The Southampton Test was the first time Virat Kohli went in with an unchanged team for successive Tests in his tenure as captain. Will Kohli make that three Tests in a row at The Oval? India's training session on Wednesday morning, two days before the final Test, hinted at the kind of combination they might be looking at.
Is Hanuma Vihari in line for a Test debut?
Vihari, a right-hand batsman who plays in the middle order, was one of two new faces that the selectors picked for the last two Tests. If Prithvi Shaw was a like-for-like replacement for M Vijay, Vihari came in at the expense of the wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav, but was more of a cover for Kohli, who had suffered a bad back at Lord's.
On match day minus two, Vihari batted in the group comprising Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. Vihari, who has the best first-class average among active cricketers, plays with an upright stance and has a compact defence. Batting coach Sanjay Bangar suggested one change to him at the nets; he felt Vihari was leaning too far forward in his follow-through after playing his strokes. Otherwise he came out unscathed, presenting a straight bat and showing good balance and footwork. If he were to make his debut, he will become India's 292nd Test player.
Does this mean India are thinking of an extra batsman?
If Vihari does play, at whose expense would he come into the team? If India stick to the same top order, then it is likely to be allrounder Hardik Pandya, who was ineffective in Southampton, making way. Pandya did bowl on Wednesday, but only batted towards the end of the batting session, after the lower order had had their hit. If India drop Pandya, it will be the first time he will have missed a Test on his three overseas tours so far.
Kohli has trusted in a five-man bowling attack outside of India with Pandya as one of the seamers. But as this series has showed, Pandya isn't as effective when the pitch and overhead conditions don't offer too much help for the quicks. He then becomes a batting allrounder, and so far he hasn't really shown enough consistency with the bat to merit batting in the top six regularly. If India drop Pandya, they will be going in with six batsmen, a keeper, and just four bowlers.
Are India retaining the same top order?
Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul and Cheteshwar Pujara were the first group of batsmen to pad up this morning. There have been murmurs about Shaw replacing one of the two openers, but he entered the nets after all the specialist batsmen were done, and batted alongside Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja. We are likely to get a clearer picture on Thursday, but as of now India seem likely to retain their top three despite the lean form of the openers.
Pujara has been impressive in the last two Tests, but the opening pair of Dhawan and Rahul have looked vulnerable. Neither of the two has managed a half-century in this series, and while their England counterparts have struggled too, the inability of India's openers to survive the new ball has hurt India.
Jadeja to replace R Ashwin?
Ashwin had been disappointing in Southampton, failing to match Moeen Ali and land the ball consistently in the footmarks. Doubts surfaced over whether Ashwin had fully recovered from the hip injury he picked during the third Test at Trent Bridge. On Wednesday India coach Ravi Shastri said Ashwin was fit, but had not managed to utilise the rough as well as Moeen did.
During India's training session, Ashwin's workload was limited to jogging around The Oval with the strength and conditioning coach Shankar Basu and then doing some light stretches. Otherwise Ashwin stood by the side of the nets, flicking the Dukes ball in his hand, but he did not bowl. Jadeja bowled and batted for significant lengths of time, which suggests he might just play his first Test of the series.