SIt will arrive: not just the second Test of the English summer, but also the second edition of the World Test Championship final. As Australia and India prepare to play in London, the venue and placement of the match remains odd. It’s so new that people aren’t sure of its significance, and the culmination of the two-year-old competition happens just days before the next edition kicks off with an Ashes series.
The final is two things for the Australian team. First, the reward for two years of qualifying that saw just three defeats in 19, a hard-fought series win over 15 days in Pakistan, as well as a home Ashes thrashing, a shared result in Sri Lanka, and a visit to India made all the more credible. Second, it’s essentially a free hit, a first swing at a title Australia have never competed in and have no blueprint for how to approach.
Things are different for India, who lost their first WTC final of 2021 to a disciplined New Zealand. Given a team that has performed well in the format over the past five years and a reign that has dominated global finances, India’s irritation at losing two in a row remains. The scale has not yet translated into the case of silverware. Interest within India will no doubt be intense.
Australia’s approach is predictable: barring a late disaster, the top seven consists of David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnes Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Cameron Green and Alex Carey. Nathan Lyon is the spinner, Pat Cummins the fast-bowling captain, and Mitchell Starc’s pace will be key on an oval pitch prone to flatness after a mistake ruled him out of the fifth Ashes Test in 2019.
The only question is the last pace spot. Josh Hazlewood was dropped from the extended squad to be conservative about recovering from another side complaint. Michael Neser replaces him, but Scott Boland is likely to be included in the playing XI ahead of Hazlewood. A call based on conditions on Boland’s seam may end up against Neser’s swing, but Boland’s contributions during qualifying will also work in his favor.
India’s plans are unclear. Rohit Sharma will captain and open the batting alongside youngster Shubman Gill after his impressive century against Australia in their last encounter in Ahmedabad. Virat Kohli ended his Test century drought in the same match and will bat for four. Cheteshwar Pujara remains at number three after a recent flurry of runs for Sussex in county cricket, and Ajinkya Rahane has been recalled at number five to complete the group of veterans.
After that, anything is possible. If India want a more competent wicketkeeper, KS Bharat or a glove-wearing batting dasher in the mold of Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishan is the option. All-rounder Ravindra Jadeja may bat six or seven fresh from his match-winning runs in the IPL final, depending on which keeper is chosen.
He could be the lone slow bowler, or join champion off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin at eight. The third option is Axar Patel, who was crucial in the recent series win against Australia, but with lower-order runs rather than bowling. Being a left-handed conservative like Jadeja doesn’t help his chances.
Playing just one spinner, swing-bowling all-rounder Shardul Thakur will be back in the team, a smash-ball type player who will break through matches with both bat and ball. Mohammad Siraj and Mohammad Shami will lead the pace attack. The final specialist quick spot is between Umesh Yadav, who has a wealth of international experience, and Jaidev Unadkat, who has a shorter but longer domestic career. But you cannot rule out India playing Thakur in that position with two spinners.
Two spinners at the Oval is a common configuration, but having never hosted a Test in June, the ground may play differently than usual. Traditionally the venue for the end of summer, its competitions usually come in August or September after months of hard surface sun. There is less chance of warm weather at the front this time. The reverse swing is another oval staple that may nullify one of Umesh’s main weapons.
Ultimately, which of the two visiting teams can consistently adjust to the conditions and the Dukes ball, whether it’s used or faced. This is part of the challenge of a neutral venue and all part of the fun. If allowed to continue, the meaning of the WTC final will only grow with time. People may not be sure of its place yet, but Test cricket has it.