Cold, overcast weather may force India to ignore their comfort zone factors in WTC final
The conditions may tempt playing four pacers at The Oval in the WTC final against Australia, but Rohit Sharma knows pitch conditions can rapidly change
It was early and it was cold. By the time the Indian team got to The Oval on the eve of the World Test Championship final, the temperature had risen to 12 degrees Celsius. Risen because it was colder before that. The wind was blowing across the ground and India skipper Rohit Sharma looked like he had been dragged out of bed for the press conference. Perhaps waking up early counted as warm-up too.
While talking about the pitch, the India skipper made his point: “I didn't have a chance to see it today. 9.15 was the press conference, never thought it will be so early.”
He said it with a smile and was joking but the match is scheduled for a 10:30 am start and that is 30 minutes earlier than usual. If conditions remain the same – read ‘cold, overcast and windy’ -- India’s two-spinner theory will go out of the window and they will have to play four pacers instead.
“It looks like there will be a bit of help for the seamers, definitely,” said Sharma. “With the overhead conditions as well, it’s going to assist seamers a fair bit. I don’t know how drastically but the pitch changes quite a bit in this part of the world. Like, when we played the last Test here, it looked very similar to this. And then as the game went on, as the day went on, it got better and better, slower and slower. And reverse swing came into play as well on Day 5. So, yeah, we're going to consider all those factors and see what will be the right combination for us to go.”
For now, India are holding their cards close to the chest because, as Rohit said, “That's a common answer, I think.”
A bit tongue-in-cheek but a bit of chutzpah never hurt anyone. If anything, it lightens the mood. The key for India, though, might be experience; experience, as bowlers, to take advantage of the conditions and experience, as batters, to battle them.
The batting line-up seems pretty sorted with Ajinkya Rahane (he celebrated his 35th birthday on Tuesday) likely to get the nod precisely because of his experience in these conditions. At his best, he was one of India’s most consistent and proven performers in overseas conditions. His away average of 40.28 is still higher than his home average of 35.73. The rest virtually pick themselves.
Finding the combination
Shubman Gill and Sharma (he had a longish knock in the nets) as openers, Cheteshwar Pujara at No. 3, Virat Kohli at No. 4 and Rahane at No. 5.
On the bowling front, it looks like Umesh will have the edge over Jaydev Unadkat. It isn’t a lot but Umesh has played two Tests in England and Unadkat none. That is two out of 56 Tests over a career that began in 2011. Unadkat, by contrast, made his debut in 2010 but has only one more Test since.
The big question will be whether to play three seamers or four. As Sharma said, the conditions can change during the game. In the last match India played at the venue, the ball was even reverse swinging on Day 5. If India decide to go with four, Shardul Thakur could get a look-in, not just for his bowling but also for his belligerent batting.
“We’ll wait until tomorrow; because one thing I have seen here, the pitch actually changes quite a bit day to day,” said Sharma. “So, the message to the boys has been very clear, all 15 must be ready to play at any point in time. We’ll see the conditions tomorrow as well and make that decision who gets into that playing 11.”
It was an optional nets session and very few players actually braved the conditions and turned up. Sharma was there because of the presser, R Ashwin, KS Bharat, Umesh Yadav and Yashasvi Jaiswal as well. The rest stayed put in their hotel rooms and will all be part of the team meeting there later in the day. It was a short, light session but the team firmly has its eye on the prize.
Much of the chatter at the ground and in the pressers has been about India’s lack of ICC trophies in the last decade. ‘They’ve got the money but where are the trophies?’ they say. ‘Can you imagine missing out on another one?’ someone else wondered aloud. ‘The reaction, if they lose, won’t be great,’ said another. The questions have been around for a while. The answers, too. Dravid was asked about it on Monday and a question was thrown Sharma’s way too.
“See, we know what we have won and what we have not won,” said Sharma. “There is no point in thinking about it again and again. Last year when we were in Australia for the T20 World Cup, we were asked the same question, and I answered the same question.
“The players know when India won and when they didn't. I don't think it is right to think about it again and again. You have to focus on the situation and how we can do better. What has happened and what is going to happen in the future, there is no point in thinking about that. It is very important to think about the present. Our team's focus is on how we will win this match.”
The oversimplified textbook version of the strategy will be to bat well, bowl well. But it is the little things that will make the difference. The match-ups that need to be exploited, the sessions that need to be played out and the counterattacks that will push the opposition back. Most of all, it will boil down to belief, in their abilities and method.
“The next five days will be quite challenging for us and gives us the opportunity to win the championship, but we do understand that winning the championship is not easy,” said Rohit. “You got to do a lot of things right to win. Right now, the focus is just on that, how we can come out on top. So, the talks, the preparation has just been around that. I’m somebody who's always believed that what you have in front of you, focus on that rather than thinking way too ahead, what can happen in the future, what kind of things you want to do.”