Rohit Sharma during a practice session | Photo: ANI
Once again the ICC World Test Championship final has returned to the consciousness of the faithful in India. The reason is obvious; two years ago India qualified for the inaugural WTC final, but went down to New Zealand in typical June conditions of the English weather at the Rosebowl in the coastal town of Southampton. The New Zealand seamers led by Kyle Jamieson, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner and Trent Boult took twenty wickets and handed India a defeat by eight wickets.
The venue for the second WTC final against Australia has changed; the match will be played at `The Oval’, the home of Surrey County cricket. At the pre-match interaction with the media on Tuesday, skipper Rohit Sharma revealed that the pitch appeared to be “one prepared for the seam bowlers”; quite the opposite of the slow and low pitches that were prepared for the home series in Nagpur, New Delhi and Indore. The pitch for the fourth Test at Ahmedabad was batsman friendly and it was the only Test that ended in a draw.
It is highly doubtful if the title match of the Test Championship cycle that began two years ago would evoke big interest among the Englishmen, but one can expect a sell-out crowd on the first four days of the marquee Test with a lot of Indian supporters likely to throng the `The Oval.’ The English media though would be keen and eager to see how the Australian team shapes against an Indian pace and seam attack that has the calling to compete with the rival batting line up that has established names like David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith and such gifted batters like Cameroon Green, Travis Head and Alex Carey.
The local interest – especially from the media and the England team --- will be mainly because of the five Test Ashes series that will follow the WTC final. England has begun its preparation for the 'Ashes’ that is looked forward with immense interest in England and Australia; the team led by Ben Stokes has already trounced Ireland in the one off Test match played last week at the Lord’s cricket ground.
India’s former batting maestro and legend, Sunil Gavaskar is surprised that for the second time, the WTC final is being held in England and believes that the final should be taken across the cricket playing world. But the ICC appears going by the Northern Hemisphere summer and has already chosen Lord’s as the venue for the final of the third WTC cycle in 2025.
For obvious reasons India, skipper Sharma and Head Coach Rahul Dravid in particular would like the roll of the dice to fall in India’s favour in all aspects of the game. India has had the upper hand against Australia in the bilateral series played in Australia and India, but the conditions in England are likely to show bias to the seam bowlers and the sideways movement of the ball --- especially under low clouds--- would make it difficult for the batters not accustomed to offer an appropriate riposte.
India has played three Test series in England from 2014 and hence have the experience; but the changing weather patterns would still make the likes of Pat Cummins (5 wickets in one Test at `The Oval), Michael Starc (3 wickets in two Tests), Scott Boland and Michael Nester (he is the last minute replacement for seamer Josh Hazlewood) tough to deal with. Off spinner Nathan Lyon has nine wickets at The Oval. It has to be seen whether Australia would field off spinner Todd Murphy, who had a good outing in India. England’s most destructive new ball pair in Stuart Broad and James Anderson have taken 24 and 23 wickets at the South London venue in the last ten years; they are followed by seamer Chris Woakes with 16. Australia’s Mitchell Marsh has taken 12 wickets in two Tests at the venue, but he is only a reserve for the WTC final. Among the Australian batsmen, Smith has scored two centuries and one half century at `The Oval’.
Among India’s batsmen, Sharma, K. L Rahul and Rishabh Pant have scored centuries at the venue, but injuries have laid low, Rahul and Pant. And hence, much will be expected of the young Shubman Gill who has played two Tests in England where his scores are 28, 8, 17 and 4.
After being dropped from the Indian team, both Cheteshwar Pujara (recalled for the away series in Bangladesh) and Ajinkya Rahane (recalled for the WTC final) give the middle order the look of solidity. Pujara scored 1094 runs in the 2022 County Championship for Sussex with five centuries and he has followed it up with 545 runs in six matches this season with three centuries. Rahane is in the team (and perhaps the playing XI too) has been recalled because Shreyas Iyer has been ruled out because of a back related ailment that surfaced during the fourth Test against Australia at Ahmedabad.
India’s pace attack comprising Moahmmed Shami (38), Mohammed Siraj (18), Umesh Yadav (9), Shardul Thakur (8) have taken 73 wickets and the spinners Ravindra Jadeja (23 wickets) and Ravichandran Ashwin (18 wickets) have taken 41 wickets. Bumrah (37 wickets) will be missed and so would be Rahul and Pant who was India’s primary stumper and a daredevil batsman.
In the absence of Pant, the national selection committee chose Kona Srikar Bharat for the four Test series against Australia. But will Sharma be tempted to play Ishan Kishan who replaced Rahul in the squad? Team selection has always been an intriguing and fascinating exercise, and Sharma has to choose between two wicket-keepers and deal with a couple of trickier ones. Eventually the weather at `The Oval’ will play its role.