India’s latest quest for an elusive World Test Championship title gets under way on Wednesday in the lush tropical setting of Windsor Park Stadium in Dominica against a West Indies team expected to struggle to cope with the formidable challenge presented by the visitors in the two-match series.
Rocked by the failure of the two-time winners to qualify for the 50-over-a-side World Cup in India in October-November this year, the Caribbean cricket community is unlikely to find solace in the shape of Kraigg Brathwaite’s side in seeking to end a barren run of 21 years without a single Test match victory against the Indians.
This brief series, which ends in Trinidad the following week in what will be the 100th Test between the two teams, marks the start of the next two-year WTC cycle leading to the final in 2025.
Beaten by New Zealand in the inaugural final in 2021 and then outplayed by Australia in the 2023 decider just four weeks ago, Rohit Sharma’s team is likely to show no more than three changes from the side that lost the new Test cricket showpiece by 209 runs at The Oval in London.
With veteran batsman Cheteshwar Pujara dropped and pacer Mohammed Shami rested, there are now opportunities for either of the uncapped Yashasvi Jaiswal or Ruturaj Gaikwad to make the number three spot their own while it will be a toss-up between Jaydev Unadkat and Navdeep Saini to fill the breach in the fast bowling department.
Spinning all-rounder Ravichandran Ashwin, unlucky to have been omitted from last month’s duel with Australia, should have the chance to add to his already impressive record against the West Indies.
In 11 Tests against these opponents he has taken 60 wickets and compiled four of his five Test centuries in averaging just over 50 with the bat.
As disconsolate as they may be by the West Indies’ failure to advance to the World Cup, fans in Dominica are anticipating that one of their own, 24-year-old Alick Athanaze, will make his Test debut in the series opener in the middle-order in place of fellow left-hander Kyle Mayers.
While Mayers has been ruled out of contention due to niggling injuries, two other players who were part of the West Indies’ abysmal World Cup qualifying campaign in Zimbawe over the previous three weeks – all-rounder Jason Holder and fast bowler Alzarri Joseph – are expected to shoulder much of the responsibility to quell the threat of a formidable Indian batting line-up.
Senior pacer Kemar Roach will still lead the attack though, while the decision on whether or not to go with two specialist spinners in Jomel Warrican and the recalled Rahkeem Cornwall or opt for the raw pace but questionable fitness of Shannon Gabriel will be determined by the appearance of the pitch on Wednesday morning.
Windsor Park has generally offered little encouragement for fast bowlers over the years but there is an element of the unknown this time around as the venue is hosting its first Test since Pakistan’s historic series-clinching triumph in 2017.
Notwithstanding their obvious underdog status and especially concerns about the ability of the batting line up to cope with the Indian attack, West Indies batting legend Brian Lara -- the performance mentor for the team -- is hopeful that the home side, and particularly the younger, inexperienced players, can offer more than a glimmer of encouragement at time of widespread cricketing gloom in the region.
“It may take some time but obviously as an international cricketer if you are at this stage, it doesn’t matter what age you’re at, you’ve got to learn very, very quickly and I think they have that sort of attitude to learn and are willing to listen,” said Lara over the weekend in summing up what he has seen so far of Athanaze and another uncapped batsman in the 13-man squad, 22-year-old Kirk McKenzie.
Following the Tests, both squads will then undergo significant personnel changes for the white ball formats which involve three One-Day Internationals and a five-match series of T20 Internationals with the final two fixtures to be played at Lauderhill, Florida in the United States.
West Indies: Kraigg Brathwaite (capt), Tagenarine Chanderpaul, Raymon Reifer, Alick Athanaze, Jermaine Blackwood, Jason Holder, Joshua da Silva (wkpr), Rahkeem Cornwall, Alzarri Joseph, Kemar Roach, Jomel Warrican
India: Rohit Sharman (capt), Shubman Gill, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Ajay Jadeja, Srikar Bharat (wkpr), Shardul Thakur, Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Siraj, Jaydev Unadkat