The World Test Championship final turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for India. Ranked No. 1 by the ICC going into the match, and having beaten Australia in four consecutive series―the last being only a couple of months ago―Rohit Sharma and his team took the field as favourites. But barring brief periods of brilliance scattered over five days, the performance was disappointingly below par. The huge margin of defeat, 209 runs, is tell-tale of how one-sided the contest was.
Teams can sometimes be hit by misfortune, but in this match bad luck cannot be trotted out as an excuse. If anything, luck favoured India when Rohit called correctly at the toss in overcast conditions.
Controversy over Cameron Green’s catch to dismiss Shubman Gill―while a good issue for academic debate―cannot obfuscate the fact that India lost because they were thoroughly outplayed. Where Australia found a way to get out of every crisis, India found new ways to slump into one.
After a promising opening session in which India plucked three wickets for 76 runs, the advantage was squandered through poor support bowling. Australia recovered through Steve Smith’s resilience and Travis Head’s derring-do to finish the day at 327-3. They never looked back. India, pushed to the back foot, kept struggling to keep afloat.
The last day of the match, with Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane at the crease, threw up a slender prospect of a stirring run chase, but such hope was extinguished swiftly. Seven wickets fell for just 55 runs in one of the most appalling batting passages of Indian cricket in recent memory.
Failure of the much-vaunted top order in both innings was the most distressing aspect of India’s performance. Rohit, Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli were guilty of lack of application in one or both innings, playing shockingly loose, low percentage shots. The pressure was enormous to be sure, but that is when the best players put their hand up. Like Smith did for Australia, and Rahane, to an extent, for India. There is unmistakable irony in the fact that the only Indian player in the squad not to have a central contract with the BCCI is Rahane!
The final began with great hype and hope, but ended in shambles, throwing up some searching questions.
Was the selection of the playing XI flawed?
Not playing R. Ashwin was a diabolical decision. He is India’s leading wicket-taker [in this WTC cycle], and over the past couple of series against Australia, had the measure of their leading batsmen―David Warner, Smith, Usman Khawaja and Marnus Labuschagne. Australia has a plethora of left-handers against whom an off-spinner was more likely to succeed.
Overcast conditions at the time of the toss obviously convinced the captain and coach to play an extra fast bowler. But the weather cleared within a couple of hours, and as the sun shone brightly, India’s hopes faded as Smith and Head hammered a double-century partnership.
Ashwin’s modest overseas record is every now and then touted as justification to drop him. But such decisions cannot be determined based on past results, rather they must be more dynamic. Why take him for the WTC final in that case!
Ashwin’s guile, variety and strong competitive streak to match wits with batters would have been better value than playing an extra fast bowler. Nathan Lyon’s five wickets showed India’s mistake in leaving Ashwin out.
Was the team poorly prepared for this important match?
This was certainly a factor. India had less than a fortnight to acclimatise for the final. Rohit said after the match that 20 to 25 days would have been ideal. Players came in batches, and did not spend much time together. However, the Australian team did not have much more time in England before the match either. What the Aussies had done, though, was prepare extensively in simulated English conditions in Sydney. Bonding and spending time together, discussing the common objective of winning the title over a continuous period of time, stretching over months, was the key.
Is India’s cricket establishment guilty of prioritising the IPL over everything else?
This became a raging debate as India’s fortunes started to slump in the match. From the poor bowling that allowed Australia to score 469 in the first innings to batting collapse in both innings, most blame was assigned to the IPL. While the IPL’s value as a sports property, both commercial and cricketing (in unearthing young talent), is tremendous, it is also true that in circumstances like those obtained for the WTC final, it impinges on player and team performance.
To switch from T20 mode (and mood) to five-day cricket is not easy. Almost the entire Indian squad was involved in the IPL till the eve of the WTC final. From the Aussies, only Warner and Green were. Some big guns like Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc pulled out of the IPL. The focus of the Aussies, all told, was on the WTC final. On the other hand, the BCCI, smug in the financial success of the IPL, seemed to see the final as the last match of an extended season rather than the most important fixture of the year. Remember, this was the second time India was in the WTC final. In 2021, too, India went to England right after the IPL and bombed.
Whether things will change from here is moot. Post match, Rohit wondered why the WTC final cannot be played before the IPL. In a cramped cricket calendar, however, there is not much scope for shifting dates of tournaments. Since the IPL season is unlikely to be moved around, and the next WTC final (2025) will also be played in England, teams will have to just prepare accordingly. Also, the matter of team owners releasing players before the IPL season is over, as suggested by former players like Ravi Shastri, is imbued with complexities.
Does this debacle suggest the end of an era in Indian cricket and compel an overhaul?
Here’s a sobering thought. Since the 2013 Champions Trophy victory, India has played two ODI World Cups, four T20 World Cups, two WTC finals and won none. Not too long back, South Africa had earned the harsh sobriquet of “chokers” for failing to come good in big matches. India’s flop show is more extended.
What is galling is the failure of the big stars in big matches. None from the top four in the batting order has played a match-winning knock (like Smith did in this match, and New Zealand’s Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor in the 2021 final), no bowler has put in a match-winning spell (like Scott Boland at the Oval, and Kyle Jamieson in 2021) in the semis or the finals of the tournaments mentioned above.
Barring some additions and deletions, it is more or less the same lot of players that has played these tournaments. To take Indian cricket ahead from this moribund state, some changes look warranted.