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India, Australia and the pursuit of an elusive WTC mace

Last updated on 06 Jun 2023 | 12:52 PM
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India, Australia and the pursuit of an elusive WTC mace

Both teams have won all the ICC titles possibly out there but one title - the World Test Championship mace - evades them

"Look, whatever will happen will happen in those five days," India’s head coach Rahul Dravid said before the World Test Championship (WTC) final. 

Without context, Dravid could well be a ‘meme’ material, but with the right context, the Indian head coach meant that anything before or after the big final doesn’t matter. 

Under this Indian management, one thing that has remained unchanged over the last year and a half - removing the emphasis from titles. They have put a blinding faith in the process, which brought them to England in the first place.

On the other hand, Australia are a side that has been caught between the hype of the Ashes and the ultimate title - of being Test champions. Last year, Australia were on the verge of making it to the final, but then an over-rate offence robbed them of a chance to play in the final.

But now they are already there, and beating India is the last step. That’s perhaps the most complicated step in the process. India enter into this apex encounter on the back of a strenuous two-match Indian Premier League. On the other hand, the Australian players are entering much more relaxed, without too much cricket in the last two months. 

What better venue than the historic Kennington Oval to host the finale, the place where Test cricket began in England. 

Things to watch out for

Will Scott Boland be a big threat to India?

Scott Boland is yet to play in England, but you would assume that someone of his bowling calibre and style would yield success. Then there’s a catch that will excite Australia and sadly sadden the Indian fans. Boland has experience with the Dukes ball, averaging 25.1, 30.1 and 26.4 in the 16/17, 17/18 and 18/19 Sheffield Shield seasons, respectively. However, he later enjoyed a good second half (with the Dukes) in 19/20, taking 13 wickets @ 20.3. 

Boland’s red-ball form is why he’s threatening. Since January 2022, the Victorian pacer has picked up 60 wickets, averaging 18.40, with an economy of 2.20. In seven Tests, Boland has picked up 28 wickets. The interesting part are the lengths where he bowls - 21 wickets in the length area, which often is the right place to bowl in England. 

“Someone like Scotty, it's just a really simple game plan – you hit your good areas and you stay there all day and hopefully the ball will do the work for you,” and that’s exactly how Pat Cummins described Boland. In essence, all he has to do is be himself. 

India’s combination - a good headache? 

Ahead of the final, Rohit Sharma, at the press conference, was asked about Ravichandran Ashwin’s inclusion in the playing XI. "I'm not saying that Ashwin is not going to play," is what Rohit had to say, with India now having to choose from the 15. That’s where the headache begins

Read: Wicketkeeper, bowling all-rounder and third seamer form India’s selection quandaries

Who becomes the first-choice wicketkeeper? Ishan Kishan or KS Bharat. Bharat averages 37.27 in his first-class career, while Kishan is at 38.76. On pecking order alone, Bharat should make the cut. 

Ashwin or Shardul Thakur? Ashwin is competing with Shardul for the bowling all-rounder’s spot at number eight. While Shardul's obvious strength is bowling in conditions like England, leaving out Ashwin might not be straightforward. So, how they go about this might be a big call. 

Who is India’s third pacer? Jaydev Unadkat or Umesh Yadav as the third seamer, with the former being a natural left-arm pick and the latter being someone experienced in playing high-pressure clashes. All the pressure will be on the shoulders of Mohammed Shami and Siraj. 

The battle of the batting units

It is The Oval so the conditions will be more batter friendly than other venues in the country. It will start that way, and the battle will be between the two batting units. In the 2021-23 WTC cycle, Australia are the best batting unit, averaging 38.8 and a run-rate of 3.5. Four Australians are at the top of the batting charts - Labuschagne (53.89 average), Khawaja (69.91), Smith (50.08) and Head (52.52) - showing their dominance with the bat. 

On the other hand, though, India’s batting average in this cycle is 31.2, and are the sixth-best team in Test cricket in this cycle. None of the Indian batters have reached the 1000-run mark in the cycle, with Cheteshwar Pujara scoring 887 runs, averaging 32.85. Virat Kohli is the second-best batter for the country in this WTC cycle, with 869 runs. 

Read: The lower-order has bailed India out often — but that might not happen in the final

Without Rishabh Pant, KL Rahul, and Shreyas Iyer, India will need more than an able contribution from the top order. 

Pitch and conditions

The Kennington Oval has been an iconic venue in England’s cricketing history, with its first Test clash way back in 1880, between England and Australia. Ever since the venue has been a host to some nail-biters and mostly series finale. The WTC final isn’t any different, it marks as a culmination of the efforts of both India and Australia. Also to note, never has a Test match being played in June here in Oval. 

England’s Test against South Africa was the last at the venue in 2022, wherein the hosts won by nine wickets. The average first-innings score at the venue since 2021 is 155, and only one side - England - have won a Test here chasing a fourth-innings total. The other two teams have preferred to defend a total at the venue. 

Visuals ahead of the WTC final suggested that there might be some bounce and carry from the surface, and historically too, the last two years have been suggestive of help for the pacers. Since the turn of 2022 in first-class cricket, only 20 wickets have fallen to spin at the venue. In comparison, 311 wickets have been taken by pacers, which accounts for 93.9% of the wickets.


The Pat Cummins threat

That’s to put it lightly, Cummins is the biggest threat to India in the WTC final. He has an outstanding record against all India’s top batting guns - Kohli, Rohit and Pujara. Pujara has frustrated the life out of Australian players in the past, but not Cummins.

Cummins has removed Pujara seven times, and the right-handed batter only averages 24.5 against the pacer. Rohit Sharma, too has gotten out thrice against Cummins, averaging 36.3. But when the contest comes to Kohli, Cummins has an enviable record, with five wickets, averaging 16.4. So, it will all depend on how the Indian batters tread the Cummins water. 

Should Ashwin feature in the XI?

India have questions over Ravichandran Ashwin but the numbers point in the direction of him playing in the WTC final. He’s India’s leading wicket-taker in the current WTC cycle (61 wickets) but also has a fantastic match-up against most of the Australian batting unit. 

He has a good record against David Warner, Khawaja, and Alex Carey. In a venue where he has played before at the County level, Ashwin’s presence could make a huge difference to the Indian team. 

Probable XIs

India have many questions to answer over their combination, but this is close to the best unit they could get from this squad, which solves both their batting depth and their bowling depth. But there could be concerns over Thakur’s bowling form.  

India XI: Rohit Sharma ( c ), Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, KS Bharat (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur/Jaydev Unadkat, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj

On the other hand, Australia have a far more certain playing unit, with skipper Pat Cummins confirming that Scott Boland is part of the playing XI after Josh Hazlewood was ruled out of the WTC final.

Australia XI: David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Cameron Green, Alex Carey (wk), Pat Cummins ( C ), Mitchell Starc, Scott Boland, Nathan Lyon

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