The World Test Championship final on June 7 is being tipped as a battle between India's star-studded top order and the formidable Australian pace attack.
The Aussies will miss the injured Josh Hazlewood, but then, the Indians, too, are without their strike bowler, Jasprit Bumrah. The Aussies still have two world-class pacers in Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, with Scott Boland and Cameron Green for support, while India have the ever-reliable Mohammad Shami and the lively Mohammed Siraj leading the attack.
The other question is, will India play both the spinners – Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – like they did in the 2021 World Test Championship final against New Zealand, and ultimately paid the price for it?
With all eyes on the bowling combinations the two teams will opt for, the focus is on how The Oval pitch will behave and whether the conditions will favour the fast bowlers or will the slower bowlers come into the picture as the match progresses.
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Interestingly, it is for the first time in over 140 years of its history that The Oval, which usually hosts a Test late in the English summer, will be holding a match as early as in the start of June. Hence, the pitch as well as the conditions, combined with players' recent assignments, make this contest even more intriguing.
Neither of the two teams have played Test cricket in the past two months as most of the players were busy in the IPL, and the change in format will be swift, along with the change from white Kookaburra ball to the red Dukes. The Duke ball is hand-stitched and holds its shape longer than the Kookaburra ball or the SG. It also aids swing and seam, thereby assisting the pacers.
Pakistan pace legend Wasim Akram had said that The Oval pitch generally favours teams from the sub-continent, but given the time of the year and a fresh pitch being used for the WTC final, it's an open game. The pitch has been sporting a healthy cover of grass two days ahead of the WTC final.
The pitches at The Oval are generally dry, with the batters finding it easier to score runs in the first two-three days. Stats, too, show this – the side batting first has won 37 times, while that batting second has won 29 times. The average first innings score (based on the last four matches here) is 357. Four Tests have been played at The Oval in the past five years, three of which have been won by the team batting first – England beat India by 118 runs in September 2018, England beat Australia by 135 runs in September 2019 and India beat England by 157 runs in September 2021 (incidentally, Rohit Sharma's only Test hundred outside the sub-continent came in this match).
The weather forecast for the WTC final is encouraging, with the first two days expected to be sunny. The third day is expected to be cloudy, with the last two days likely to see occasional drizzle. But, English weather being notoriously unpredictable, all predictions might go out of the window.
The team winning the toss, however, is likely to bat first and try and put up a big total. The catch is that, this summer, in the two home matches so far, Surrey have won the toss and decided to bowl first.
The recent head-to-head record is in India's favour, having won all the four Test series since 2017.
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.
Can India finally end their trophy drought at The Oval? Let's wait and watch.