In an attempt to dissect what went wrong for India at the 2023 ICC World Test Championship Final, this exercise seemed interesting. It is not possible that the result of a match, especially one in Test cricket that is played over five days, is decided by one single factor. It is fair to say, there are always a combination of factors in play. So, here’s a thought. Let’s try and list a few reasons (might not be an exhaustive one) of why Rohit Sharma and Co came up short at The Oval against Australia, losing by 209 runs to finish runners-up for the second time running.

  • Team selection played a part, perhaps. With Ravindra Jadeja and Nathan Lyon getting a fair bit of assistance on the pitch, India had another world-class spinner in their ranks while Australia didn’t. Could that have been a difference maker? Sachin Tendulkar (or his Twitter account) certainly thought so.
  • The majority of the main batters came up short, on what was actually – all said and done – a decent pitch to bat on. While Australia had two batters score big in the first innings, India depended on a lower-order revival to even to get close to 300.
  • While Australia had a majority of their squad come into this match fresh, without too much workload in the last few weeks, nearly all the Indian players were involved in the Indian Premier League for a couple of months. And this year, the IPL had so much more travel than in recent past with the resumption of the home and away format. There was very little time to acclimatise to conditions in England.
  • Perhaps the most simplest of explanations, Australia had the better squad for these conditions. And India missed two players who, until recently, were featuring in discussions of an all-time great Indian Test XI. Jasprit Bumrah and Rishabh Pant are not easily replaced.

Of course, we could add a couple more too. But the point of this mini exercise was: how many of these factors are new? Was there something that revealed itself over the course of the last five days? Something that popped out of nowhere and surprised us all, like sporting contests tend to do sometimes?

Familiar woes

Even before the match started, a lot of us knew there was a chance Ashwin Ravichandran – despite being the No 1 ranked Test bowler in the world – wouldn’t play. A pointed question along that line was asked to Rohit Sharma in the pre-match press conference, and he gave the answer that perhaps a captain would: “I’ve not said that Ashwin is not going to play. We’ll wait until tomorrow.” Of course, he didn’t play.

The batting problem has been around for a while now. In this cycle of the World Test Championship (since August 2021), for wickets No 1 to No 4, India’s average partnership per dismissal was 34.94. Australia, Pakistan, New Zealand and England all boasted better numbers.

In a post-match chat on Star Sports, India head coach Rahul Dravid was asked about the continued struggles of the batting lineup. The former India captain said, “The same boys have won twice in Australia, won Tests in England. Yes, they will agree this wasn’t up to their high standards but we’re working on it. Some of the wickets have been challenging. This was a good wicket, but some other conditions haven’t been easy.”

He also pointed out that with teams playing for results, and the pitches getting difficult across the world for batting, the dips in numbers are to be expected. “You need points, can’t play for draws,” he said. “So everywhere, even in India, the wickets have been tough. You have to factor this in while looking at averages. It’s not just ours, but yes, we need to work on it. If we give bowlers runs to play with, we can win Tests.”

While that is a valid argument, the fact that Indian batters are struggling more than most and that their numbers have been a cause for concern for a while can’t be discounted.

Avg partnership per wickets No 1 to No 4

Team Runs Ave p'ship / dismissal 100 50
Australia 6447 50.76 19 27
Pakistan 4814 47.19 15 16
New Zealand 3911 43.94 11 15
England 6174 38.34 18 20
India 4718 34.94 9 25
Sri Lanka 2999 34.07 6 11
South Africa 3460 30.89 4 23
West Indies 2572 27.07 3 17
Bangladesh 1922 21.35 4 2
via ESPNCricinfo (From August 2021)

The workload because of IPL was discussed before the season started, as well as before the final. It is what it is, was the general response. Of course, what can one do. The biggest T20 league in the world, Indian cricket’s prized property, needs it’s superstar players. And Australia have an Ashes series coming up shortly, the biggest event in their (and England’s) eyes. This, again, wasn’t a surprise.

And then finally, India have known for a while now that two of their best Test players were not going to be available.

Then the Ashwin question... well, what does one say here? Conditions of course play a part in team selections in a sport like cricket which is dependent so much on external factors. But how does one of the best spinners in the world keep getting overlooked remains a mystery. It is worth pointing out here that Ashwin’s selection perhaps might not have made a massive difference to the end result. But did India give themselves the best chance to compete? Ricky Ponting said on air in the opening day of the Test that it felt like India picked a XI based on conditions when they walked out to the field on the opening day.

Rohit Sharma addressed a few of these issues (strangely, there wasn’t a question asked about Ashwin but perhaps there wasn’t a good answer to that at this point.) The bowling effort on Day 1 wasn’t ideal. The batting in the first innings wasn’t great. The batting collapse and shot selection in the second innings wasn’t ideal.

So the question then is this: if so much of the post-match analysis feels familiar to a pre-match analysis, what did the Indian team management do to address these? The flaws in this Indian team have been evident for a while now, and they have succeeded despite those is credit to the quality of the personnel. But this defeat at The Oval goes even beyond that. What were the Board of Control for Cricket in India doing about the scheduling?

The head-less selection committee has had enough time to think about the batting issues in Test cricket, and yet little has changed in this WTC cycle, let alone the final. The coach and the captain have made some calls that backfired but the system around them hasn’t exactly helped either.

No team or athlete has a pre-determined right to win a world title. India’s performances in Test cricket have been better than a vast majority of teams, and the deserved to be here for this title clash. But with all the resources at their disposal, the fact remains that there was an air of predictability as India’s wait for an ICC trophy in senior cricket continues. What changes from here?