'Ultimate Test': India face tough Australia challenge as it aims to end ICC title drought
A formidable bunch of Indian cricketers will require a perfect blend of skill and temperament when it clashes with an equally-strong Australia in the World Test Championship final, starting Wednesday, with an aim to end a decade-long global trophy jinx.
India have been the most consistent side over the past two WTC cycles and also reached knockout phases of major white-ball tournaments over the last 10 years but a trophy has eluded them.
The last major ICC trophy India won was way back in 2013 when it bagged the Champions Trophy in England. Since then, the side has lost three finals and on four occasion it bit dust at the semifinal stage. It also made an exit at the preliminary stage of the 2021 T20 World Cup.
The country has been pretty much driving the finances of the sport and considering the vast talent pool on offer, the expectations of dominating the game on field seem only fair.
Out of the six series India played in this cycle, their only series loss came in South Africa and that led to an unexpected change of guard with Rohit Sharma taking over the leadership role from Virat Kohli.
They remained unconquerable at home, drew a hard-fought series in England before surviving a slight scare in Bangladesh.
Winning the big titles is what defines the legacy of a team but whatever may be the outcome of the final at The Oval, India head coach Rahul Dravid's opinion about his team won't change.
"In the context of things, you look at this and you see this is the culmination of two years of work. It's a culmination of a lot of success that gets you here," said Dravid ahead of the title clash.
"Winning the series in Australia, drawing series here, being very competitive everywhere that this team has played in the world over the last five or six years. I think those are things that will never change just because you have or you don't have an ICC trophy," he said.
Need to learn from past mistakes
India ignored the conditions and went with their traditional strength -- two spinners – against the Black Caps in the final at Southampton two years ago but the move backfired.
As The Oval gears up to host its first ever Test in June in its 143-year existence, India are heading into the unknown and face a couple of key selection calls that might decide the fate of the game.
It will always be a temptation to play both Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin in the same team but considering that it is only the start of the summer and pitches are fresh, there is a strong case for a fourth pace bowling option.
In the batting department, Rishabh Pant is not available to bail the team out in case of a top-order collapse. Therefore, the management needs to decide whether it need the 'x-factor' of Ishan Kishan or the more reliable wicket-keeping skills of K S Bharat.
The wily Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj pick themselves in the pace department and a call needs to be made between old-horse Umesh Yadav and all-rounder Shardul Thakur.
The quick switch from IPL to playing red ball cricket
Majority of India's squad members were involved in two-month long IPL and only got a week to train together in the scenic town of Arundel before heading to London.
As a modern-day cricketer, one is expected to smoothly switch formats but playing Test cricket in England is never easy.
The job gets tougher when one has to face the likes of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Scott Boland, who is expected to start in place of injured Josh Hazlewood.
It is being as billed as the 'Ultimate Test' and it will indeed be one for proven performers like Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli as well for a rising star like Shubman Gill. Cheteshwar Pujara will look to extend the rich form he has shown in County cricket while Ajinkya Rahane will be itching to deliver in his comeback game.
For Australia, it's a high-stake 'warm up' for Ashes
In comparison to Indians who are match-fit after a long IPL season, Australians will go into the final with fresher mind and body.
Only three of their players were part of the league in India. Players like Cummins chose to prepare back home while Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith got themselves ready for the long summer with County stints.
The game could well be decided by how the top-order of either team fares against high-quality pace. After a couple of prolific seasons, opener Usman Khawaja will be expected to shine on the big stage while David Warner will have a point to prove in the twilight of his career.
Smith averages close to 100 at this ground and India will need to get rid of him early before he takes the game away from their grasp.
No matter how the surface will behave, veteran off-spinner Nathan Lyon will continue to ask questions and Cameron Green's contribution as an all-rounder will be invaluable.
Australia: Pat Cummins (captain), Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, 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.
Match starts 3 PM IST
Where to watch: The WTC final will be broadcast live on the Star Sports network, on the following channels: Star Sports 1, Star Sports 1 HD. Live streaming will be available on Disney+ Hotstar.