India's Oval-sized challenge

There is a lot going for India as they take on a formidable Australia from June 7, but there are a few concerns as well
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 14:34 IST

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The Indian Premier League has grown so big and become so rich that India's commitment to Test cricket is often the subject of scrutiny. It doesn't matter if they have played the third most Tests (18) in the 2021-2023 cycle, behind England (22) and Australia (19). It doesn't matter if they have made it to the final of the World Test Championship for the second edition in succession.

For a country that has invested so much in white-ball cricket, it's commendable for India to consistently stay among the top performers in the traditional format. England and South Africa are yet to make the WTC final, defending champions New Zealand went out of the race for the summit clash long back and Sri Lanka added some artificial excitement by running the Kiwis close as India kept a close eye on the outcome which could have had a bearing on their prospects. But here India are again in England, this time at The Oval, desperate to add an ICC silverware which they last won in the shape of the 2013 Champions Trophy.

A lot has changed since India lost the inaugural WTC final to New Zealand in Southampton two years ago. There is a complete overhaul of the support staff, and the leadership of the team has changed hands. In terms of team composition, though, skipper Rohit Sharma has inherited a majority of the squad that his predecessor, Virat Kohli, had at his disposal. By some quirk of fate, even Ajinkya Rahane, whose career appeared all but done, is back and is a shoo-in at No. 5. Only the injured trio of former vice-captain KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant and pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah is missing, as is veteran quick Ishant Sharma, no longer in the team's scheme of things.

There is a lot going for India as they take on a formidable Australia from June 7, but there are a few concerns as well. How well India overcome these concerns will hold the key to their fortunes.

Batting in good shape

Barring the unforeseen, the top-five slots are sealed and save Rohit, whose form has been a bit wobbly in the last few months, the remaining four look in fine fettle. But there's a catch - three out of these four batters are coming on the back of two months of T20 cricket in Indian conditions. Shubman Gill, the highest scorer in the IPL, Kohli and Rahane amassed big runs but the challenge for them will be to seamlessly translate that success into red-ball cricket in England, where overhead conditions will be vastly different in early summer. It's not that the three batters are unfamiliar to these environs; they know exactly what to expect in this part of the world but the question is how quickly they will be able unlearn, if any, some of the T20 habits they might have picked up and adjust their game to the Dukes ball. Axar Patel revealed the other day that the WTC squad members had practiced with the red Dukes ball during the IPL. One’s not sure if the batters did that too. A good opening stand is critical in these conditions, and the onus will be on Rohit and Gill to ensure that. For the record, Rohit was the man of the match for his second-innings 127 in the 2021 series against England at The Oval. On the positive side of things, Pujara, who bats at the crucial No. 3 position, has been playing County cricket since April for Sussex and has stacked up some big numbers - 115, 35, 18, 13, 151, 136, 77 and 0. It’s not only his batting that India will be banking on, but also his inputs, as Sunil Gavaskar pointed out, that will be invaluable.

Fretting over bowling combination

There's no point brooding over Bumrah's absence as the pacer has been missing for almost a year now. For a country with India’s depth, the focus must be on making the best use of the resources available. India aren't left with crumbs to pick from. In Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj, they have two world-class bowlers whose skills are aligned perfectly with English conditions. They both have the skill sets to swing and seam the ball at disconcerting pace, a trait they exhibited during India's last visit to the country for a five-Test series. Agreed, they are coming on the back of a two-month IPL following white-ball series against New Zealand, South Africa and Sri Lanka. But what was refreshing about Shami, the Purple Cap winner for the highest wickets in the IPL, and Siraj was that they derived their success from sticking to Test cricket lengths and allowing the new ball to swing. India will hope the duo continues its good work even as they fret over whether to play four pacers and a spinner or three pacers and two spinners. This is the toughest call India will have to take, and could have a big say on the outcome.

MSK Prasad, who was the chief selector during the last WTC final, made an interesting observation a couple of days ago when he said India shouldn't pick the XI with a "pre-determined mindset." The former India wicketkeeper was obviously referring to the decision to play both R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja despite heavy rains in the run-up to the Rose Bowl clash and overhead conditions begging for the inclusion of a fourth seamer. India's decision backfired and they followed the one-spinner template in the Test series that followed against England, winning two Tests in an engrossing series. Given Shardul Thakur's abilities with the bat and his past success in England, he will be the third seamer while Jadeja would be the first spinner, leaving Ashwin and Umesh Yadav to fight for the lone bowling spot. The Oval's reputation for being the friendliest of the English pitches for spinners may tempt India to include Ashwin, who can also add depth to batting, but early summer conditions could tilt the balance in favour of Umesh. Remember, India won at The Oval in 2021 to take 2-1 lead in the five-Test series while playing four seamers and Umesh was one of their successful bowlers, running through England's lower-middle and lower-order in their second innings in a compelling exhibition of reverse-swing.

Wicketkeeper conundrum

Pant, recovering from a knee surgery, has left a gaping hole in the middle-order that India have been unable to taper over. KS Bharat is an excellent stumper but lack of runs from his bat appeared to affect his keeping as well during the four-Test series against Australia. India also have Ishan Kishan, a hard-hitting left-hander in the mould of Pant, but his keeping skills in England, where the ball does a fair bit and especially after passing the stumps, are untested. Are India ready to take a punt on him or play it safe by opting for Bharat? If Bharat's six Test innings -- 101 runs with a highest of 44 -- are anything to go by, he doesn't inspire much confidence with the bat but if the team management gives more weightage to his skill behind the wickets, he will be donning the big gloves. In that case, does it influence India's bowling combination wherein both Shardul and Ashwin are accommodated to bolster the batting?

India indeed have some tricky calls ahead of them, decisions that could define the course of the match.

Published 03 June 2023, 14:21 IST

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