As India and Australia head into what is expected to be a high-octane World Test Championship final on Wednesday, the former go in with plenty of match-time behind them (albeit in white-ball cricket) having played the IPL 2023, but the bulk of the Australian team has had little high-level cricket action since the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in India.
Interestingly, that has been one of the talking points ahead of the WTC finale because it remains to be seen whether the differing build-ups puts teams in better stead. So, do you need some competitive cricket behind you or is it better to come in fresh?
Ravi Shastri, Wasim Akram and Ricky Ponting believed that Australia look strong on paper but India have an upper-hand if match-readiness is to be considered.
Australian skipper Pat Cummins, however, believes that rustiness is not a concern and was confident of the training they had put in for the finale.
“Breaks are rare to come by,” said the captain at the same event. “I have always said, with six Test matches (including five in the Ashes), it is better to be slightly underdone than overdone. I am talking from a bower’s point of view. So I want to be physically fresh.”
“Back home, we did lot of training. We have trained hard, rejuvenated and refreshed and are keen,” he added.
So, apart from Cameron Green and David Warner in IPL and Marnus Labuschagne (and Michael Neser) in county cricket, the Australian team are largely coming in fresh. That is in contrast to the non-stop cricket the entire Indian squad barring perhaps KS Bharat and Umesh Yadav (Cheteshwar Pujara has been active in County Cricket too) has been playing.
On the flip side of this build-up is Indian batters having to adapt quickly between two vast extremes of batting. But as India head coach Rahul Dravid mentioned in the press conference, most of the Indian batting lineup have prior experience of playing red-ball cricket in England, and perhaps that will help bridge the preparatory gap.
X-factor or continuity?
Another major talking point ahead of the clash at The Oval is India’s dilemma while picking the wicket-keeper in the playing XI. With Rishabh Pant out of action, India are missing the X-factor they possess even though they have the solid wicket-keeping skills of KS Bharat.
India also have Ishan Kishan after he replaced the injured KL Rahul in the squad. Bharat has been India’s go-to keeper in Pant’s absence, so it only makes sense that he’s their first choice as the incumbent. However, Kishan can bring back the explosiveness that has been missing in the squad now in the middle order.
Because both the batters have no experience of playing in English conditions, the decision doesn’t become easier. Bharat scored 101 runs in six innings in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and it is safe to say that he did not grab his opportunities then.
However, with Shreyas Iyer also not playing, India need to prioritise batting ability. Ajinkya Rahane is making a comeback into the side and will strengthen the batting, thanks to his experience and current form. But it remains to be seen if he can carry over that form across formats.
On Rahane’s comeback, Dravid said in the pre-match press conference on Monday, “We’ve had a few injuries which have probably led to him having the opportunity to come back into the squad. Great for us to have someone of his quality back. He brings obviously a lot of that experience, he brings proven performance in overseas conditions. Even in England he’s played some terrific innings for us. He brings terrific catching in the slips as well.”
With Rahane offering that stability on paper at least, would the temptation increase to go for a riskier batting option in Kishan?
Two-pronged spin attack?
Additionally, one of the biggest takeaways in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy was the success of Australia’s spin-attack of Nathan Lyon, Mike Kuhnemann and Todd Murphy who picked 45 wickets between them.
In England, Australia revert to a pace-heavy line-up as confirmed by Cummins with Scott Boland coming in. India cannot take their combination lightly. There is a temptation to play just one spinner and have a world-class variety to choose from between R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja but also Axar Patel, who has built upon his batting ability. However, the number of spinners the teams decide upon remains to be seen.
“I have not said that Ashwin is not going to play. We’ll wait until tomorrow because one thing we have seen here is that the pitch actually changes quite a bit day to day. Today, it is looking the way it is, tomorrow it might be slightly different so, who knows?”— Rohit Sharma at the pre-match press conference
In the build-up to this match, Smith spoke about the conditions saying, “The Oval is a wonderful place to play cricket in. Lightning-fast outfield, the square goes the whole way across the ground so it is a nice place to bat when you get in and has some decent pace and bounce for an English surface.”
Jadeja has the advantage against Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne and it is hard to leave Ashwin out too. India, however, have sometimes been reluctant to play Ashwin in English conditions.
But a dry pitch expected to turn later on could mean Ashwin, number one in the ICC Test bowling rankings, is deployed alongside left-arm spinner Jadeja.
Ashwin has a fine Test record against Australia, with 114 wickets at an average of under 29, and he shared the player-of-the-series award with Jadeja in the home series win against Australia earlier this year.
A major positive remains the confidence and form Shubman Gill and Virat Kohli are in. Along with Pujara, they are likely to be key when it comes to India’s batting. Bowling wise, Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami have looked to be in great rhythm in the IPL and will be leading the attack against their Australian counterparts Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins.
The contest is set up fascinatingly, and the top two sides in the world promise a battle worth the occasion.
Australia: Pat Cummins (captain), Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Michael Neser, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Josh Inglis, Todd Murphy, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, David Warner.
Reserves: Mitch Marsh, Matt Renshaw
India: Rohit Sharma (captain), Ravichandran Ashwin, KS Bharat, Shubman Gill, Ravindra Jadeja, Virat Kohli, Ishan Kishan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Axar Patel, Ajinkya Rahane, Mohammad Shami, Mohammad Siraj, Shardul Thakur, Jaydev Unadakt, Umesh Yadav.
Reserves: Yashasvi Jaiswal, Mukesh Kumar, Suryakumar Yadav