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Rohit Sharma – Kuldeep Yadav ‘a very tempting option’ as third spinner

Kuldeep Yadav or Axar Patel? India know who they want in their XI to play the first of five Tests against England starting on Thursday, but they would prefer to keep the opposition guessing.
Both players offer compelling reasons to pick them. Kuldeep has “X-factor”, India captain Rohit Sharma said on the eve of the game in Hyderabad. While Kuldeep has played only eight Tests since making his debut in March 2017, he has worked on his bowling in the recent past and showcased the very ability that India value in all their bowlers – keeping the stumps in play – even if it has been in limited-overs cricket.

“Kuldeep gives you a certain X-factor with his bowling,” Rohit said. “You’ve seen how well he’s been bowling of late. Especially the wicket if it has bounce, or if it doesn’t have bounce, Kuldeep becomes a factor in those types of conditions as well because he has got superb variations.

“He is also a much more mature bowler now. He has not played a lot of Test cricket in India because of [R] Ashwin and [Ravindra] Jadeja clearly. But that is what happens. Like with our middle order, all of us got an opportunity really late. But that’s the reality of it. You can’t hide from it. But Kuldeep being the bowler he is now, from what he was a couple of years back, he is much more improved and he is a very tempting option without a doubt.”

Kuldeep played a Ranji Trophy match in the lead-up to this series; it was his first in over seven years and his first since becoming a Test cricketer. In that game, against Kerala, he bowled 26 overs across two innings and picked up four wickets, including the opposition’s highest scorer. The reason he is back in the picture is because Axar didn’t really go all that well in India’s last home series, against Australia in February-March 2023. Axar bowled only 13 overs each in the first three Tests, but he did end up as one of the team’s highest run-getters.

“Axar with his all-round ability, giving us that batting depth, the consistency that he has shown playing in these conditions in Test cricket also is an important factor for us,” Rohit said. “It was a bit of a headache for us to decide who it was going to be. I’m not going to say who it is but it was a challenge for us to make that decision. We know we’ve got quality around our spin-bowling department, which is a good sign. When you’ve got quality around your team, when there’s a headache to make your playing XI, that’s a good sign.”

Axar’s prized weapon is the ball that doesn’t turn. Exactly half of his 50 Test wickets are either bowled or lbw, and most of them involve the left-arm spinner beating the right-hander on the inside edge. The reason he kept doing that is because he was also getting the odd ball to turn. Against Australia, he seemed to have lost that a little bit. But now, after recovering from a quadriceps injury that forced him out of the ODI World Cup, Axar looks like he’s getting back to his old self. The left-arm spinner comes into these Tests having picked up ten wickets in seven T20Is against Australia and Afghanistan played over the last two months.

The Hyderabad pitch will turn. Rohit, when asked about it in the pre-match press conference where he was happy to talk at length about various other topics – like the health of Test cricket, the value of blooding new players in, and the strength of his side in home conditions – gave a curt answer: “Looks good”.

Rahul Dravid, on Tuesday, expected that it would take turn. England are certain to the extent that they’re going in with three frontline spinners and only one fast bowler. Kuldeep remains a prospect, especially against an opposition that will not hesitate to attack. Success in ODIs and T20Is has taught him how to cope with batters coming at him. It was just that his Test game was lacking a bit of control and he has since worked on that, getting quicker through the air without really losing any of his other assets – turn and bounce.
But Axar brings that and batting ability, and with India missing Virat Kohli, they will probably want to shore up the XI with as many all-round options as possible.

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