India head into the World Test Championship (WTC) final against Australia at the Oval in London on Wednesday, 7 June, perched on the horns of a familiar dilemma: to play both their world class spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, or leave one of them out for a fourth seam bowler? That is the question they face every time they play in seam-friendly conditions abroad.
If history is any guide, India should field four seamers as they did to go 2-1 up in the Test series against England in 2021. The tough decision to leave out Ashwin proved a winning strategy.That move was a fallout of India’s loss to New Zealand in the 2021 WTC final in Southampton, which preceded the Test series against England.
Typical English damp weather leading up to and during that year’s WTC final had made batting conditions very difficult. It was a dream wicket for seamers who got both bounce and lateral movement.
But India cockily announced their team in advance the day before the final, with two spinners and three seamers. New Zealand, on the other hand, waited till the morning of the Test and decided to go all in with a five-man seam attack.While India succumbed to the sustained pressure of the Kiwi pace attack, New Zealand took advantage of a tiring three-man Indian seam attack to gain a vital first innings lead. In the end, the Kiwis won easily.
This year, the venue is the Oval, where spinners do come into the frame in the second innings. But Tests are usually played there in September and not so early in the English summer. The chances are that the cooler and wetter weather in London at this time of the year will again favour the seam bowling in the WTC final.
The smart move for India would be to match the Aussies with a four-man seam attack. In Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj, they have a potent new ball combination. But they need a pair of seamers to continue the attack after the opening spells, instead of rotating three seamers and tiring them out as they did in the last WTC final.
Umesh Yadav with his experience, speed, and ability to swing the ball can be a handful at the Oval. Shardul Thakur can chip in with his variations, although his bowling form has dipped since the famous Brisbane Test in 2021 where he had a 7-wicket haul.
If India do bite the bullet and pick four seamers, the question becomes whom to leave out: Ashwin or Jadeja. After finishing the Indian Premier League (IPL) with a six and a four to grab the title for Chennai Super Kings (CSK), Jadeja’s all-round prowess is hard to ignore. But he was wicketless in the last WTC final, and if the pitch again lacks assistance for spin this time, Ashwin may be the better choice.
The off-spinner relies more on flight and guile. He snared the left-handed Kiwi opening pair in both innings of the 2021 WTC final. And the Aussie batting lineup too has a number of left-handers, including the openers David Warner and Usman Khawaja, whom Ashwin can target. He’s handy with the bat, and since Shardul Thakur too is an all-rounder, this gives the team enough batting depth.
While picking the bowling unit will be a headache for coach Rahul Dravid and skipper Rohit Sharma, the five specialist batsmen almost pick themselves. Although the skipper has been failing in the shorter formats, that’s partly due to his über-aggressive intent. He showed his quality as a Test opener in the England series in 2021, and India will rely on him to give a solid start with his opening partner, Shubman Gill, who has been in sublime form.
Former skipper Virat Kohli regaining form is a morale-booster, given his familiarity with English conditions. The return of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane to No.3 and No.5 makes this the identical specialist batting lineup to that of the 2021 WTC final. While that may be a consolation in terms of experience, it’s a worry that India failed to groom new Test batting stars despite the oodles of talent on display in the IPL.
Shreyas Iyer is out with a serious injury, and Suryakumar Yadav has not been able to translate his T20 prowess to the longer formats in the few chances he got. It’s tempting to consider Yashasvi Jaiswal right after a stunning IPL season. A classy left-handed batsman, he would also break up India’s string of right-handers. But he’s only in the reserves and the Indian setup is not so radical as to bring a rookie into the WTC final.
Pujara came back to the Test side with a century against Bangladesh, ending a long drought in triple figure scores. But he has mostly failed after that, with a solitary fifty in the home series against Australia. He has got tons of runs in the county season in England, but in the lesser Division 2.
As for Rahane, playing under M.S. Dhoni for CSK in IPL 2023 has been transformative. Whether he can carry that positive intent into the WTC final in England, where batting success depends as much on leaving balls outside off stump as strokemaking, is a moot point. But he’s a steely character and a good man to have in the side.
With no changes expected in the specialist batting lineup from the 2021 WTC final, it comes down to the choice of wicketkeeper-batsman in place of the injured Rishabh Pant. Srikar Bharat and Ishan Kishan are the contenders.
Bharat is the better man behind the stumps, and has been India’s preferred choice on the turning wickets at home that require nifty glove work. But with spinners unlikely to have a leading role to play in England, that wicketkeeping edge is somewhat nullified.
Kishan is the better batsman. Although he had a middling IPL season with three fifties in 15 outings, the attacking left-hander can be a dangerous proposition in the late middle order. In that respect, he comes close to being a like-for-like replacement for Pant. He can also handle the second new ball, if it comes to that, given his experience as an opener.
All things considered, the Indian team looks good on paper, but how they fare on the ground will depend on the choice of playing 11.
As for Australia, their main worry is the availability of opening bowler Josh Hazlewood who left the IPL midway with a side strain. Hazlewood’s pinpoint accuracy and lateral movement off the seam would be vital in England.
Among all English grounds, the Oval is where Australia have the worst record, with only two wins in the last 50 years. That will be music to India’s ears. India beat England by 157 runs at the Oval in the 2021 Test series, but that was their first win at this venue in 40 years.
So, after two years of Tests to decide the WTC finalists, it comes down to a one-off shootout at a venue that’s alien to both sides. Ideally, the WTC winner should emerge from a best-of-three series played in different conditions around the world, but that would be a logistical nightmare. So here we have it, a five-day staring contest (plus a reserve day in case of rain), with the team that doesn’t blink coming out on top.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.