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Can Team India bounce back after a listless performance in the first innings of the WTC final?
Barely a fortnight back Indian fans were celebrating the grand success of our beloved IPL and the sound health of Indian cricket with superb performances by Indian stars. But now, it’s a reality check once again as India wilts against Australia in the World Test Championship (WTC) Final. At the time of writing this, India managed just 296 in their first innings, conceding a 173-run lead, and well on the way to a possible defeat - if that happens, it will be their second consecutive loss in a WTC final. Team India had lost to New Zealand in the 2021 final and barring a miracle in the second innings of the ongoing game, it will now be a full decade since India won an ICC title!
Playing the WTC final right after the IPL was always going to be a huge challenge for Team India. But Rohit Sharma and the brains trust of the team made it far tougher for themselves by dropping Ashwin, the off-spinner who is the No.1 bowler in the ICC Test rankings. His omission has been slammed by most experts from Gavaskar and Ganguly to Ponting and Hayden. They point out that India just picked a team for the first innings of the match. The pitch at Oval, England is a little up and down and has turned even on day two for Aussie offie, Nathan Lyon. As such, India should have played to their strength by picking both Ravindra Jadeja and Ravi Ashwin in the playing 11.
Throughout the test championship, Ashwin has been phenomenal and picked up 61 wickets, making him the thirdhighest wicket-taker in the WTC 2021-23 cycle - just behind Lyon (83) and Kagiso Rabada from South Africa (67). Also, Ashwin has a terrific record against left-handers - of his 474 Test wickets, over 230 are left-handers. With five lefties in Australia’s line-up, Ashwin ought to have been a sure-shot starter.
An interesting fact that many pointed out on social media is that while India has gone in with 4 seamers and Jadeja - the bowling attack put together has less wickets than what Ashwin alone has got! What bewilders the fans more is that Ashwin had tormented Australia earlier in the year during the BorderGavaskar trophy as he picked up 25 wickets and shared the Player of The Series award with Ravindra Jadeja.
Indian legend and ex- Captain, Sunil Gavaskar has pointed out that 2 of the 4 seamers – Umesh Yadav and Shardul Thakur were undercooked coming into the contest due to their limited bowling time in the recently-concluded IPL. As such, one of them should have been kept out to bring in Ashwin. Moreover, Ashwin’s handy batting is also being badly missed. With Team India suffering a major collapse of the top order, Ashwin’s plucky and spirited batting would have been most useful.
India’s lower middle order has been to the rescue many times in this Championship cycle. Even in this test, after a flop show by the top 4 batsmen, Rahane stood tall with a fabulous 89 and was ably supported by Jadeja who made 48 and Shardul Thakur who scored a gritty 51. Ashwin’s presence as a batsman would have cushioned India’s batting order as well. In fact, Rahane’s century partnership with Thakur was instrumental in saving India from a follow-on, giving them a sliver of a chance to save the match.
The poor first innings show by India also raised questions on their preparations owing to the IPL finishing less than 10 days before the WTC final. Former Aussie cricketer, Brad Hogg talked about how the Australians were much better prepared for the final. In contrast, many Indian players, especially bowlers, looked listless on the first day as Steve Smith and Travis Head made a feast scoring runs and eventually hitting hundreds each. Hogg also questioned the scheduling of the final straight after the IPL, stating that it would have been better to play the match immediately following the India vs. Australia Test series in March.
The Indian team management could have ensured a little more preparation time for their marquee players as it was important to enter the final on an equal footing with Australia. Given the glorious uncertainties of cricket, the WTC final may still turn on its head and provide Indian fans a relief. But as the wise say, miracles happen to those who prepare the best and sadly Indian players present a contrasting picture from the fresh and hungry Australian cricket team!
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY THE AUTHOR ARE PERSONAL
Siddhaarth Mahan The writer is a specialist on Sports and Cinema who works as an actor in the Hindi film industry