WTC Final, Day 1: Australia have Head in the right place

Jun 07, 2023 11:28 PM IST

India left out Ashwin and on an Oval pitch that got better for batting, the bowling attack wilted against Head (146*), Steve Smith (95*) on Day 1 of WTC final.

Missing Ashwin. Missing Bumrah. Missing Pant. So much of the first day of the World Test Championship final at The Oval on Wednesday left us yearning for these game changers. None of them are playing of course, but as Australia piled on the runs through Travis Head and Steve Smith, one couldn't help but wonder if things could have, in some alternate dimension, played out differently.

Australia's Travis Head and Australia's Steve Smith walk back to the pavilion after putting unbeaten 200 runs. (AFP)
Australia's Travis Head and Australia's Steve Smith walk back to the pavilion after putting unbeaten 200 runs. (AFP)

When Head got going, one thought of R Ashwin and his brilliant record against left-handers. When Umesh Yadav bowled Geoffery Boycott’s version of 'rooobish', the injured Bumrah’s ability to bowl a match-changing spell came to mind. And when KS Bharat seemed to go a little flat behind the stumps, one thought of the ever-chirpy Rishabh Pant.

It was the kind of day to fall back on the ‘what-ifs’ because reality provided no succour. At close of play, Australia had made their way to 327/3, thanks largely to a brilliant unbroken 251-run partnership in just 257 minutes between Head (146* off 156 balls) and Smith (95* off 227).

With a crowd made up largely of Indians in attendance, India started the day well. They won the toss, and in overcast conditions left out Ashwin, brought in Umesh and elected to bowl. When they sent Usman Khawaja back for a duck, their smiles lit up the stadium. The right choice, the right attack and the right result.

But Australia got stuck in. First, David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne steadied the ship with a 69-run stand. It kept India’s bowlers at bay during the dangerous time of the day. The ball was moving around and beating the ball quite regularly but in the 108 balls the duo was together, they considerably blunted India’s edge.

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Warner’s wicket, caught down the leg-side off Shardul Thakur after making 43, got Steve Smith to the middle. And he was in the mood to spend some time in the middle. Shots weren’t his priority, time was. So, he batted, worrying about his off-stump, how he was leaving the ball and how the bowlers were swinging the ball. Everything else was seemingly shut out.

Australia went into lunch at a rather comfortable 73/2 but when they lost Labuschagne just after the break (76/3), India had the opportunity to seize the advantage. It was right there but then so was Head.

The left-hander motored to 28 off 19 balls, taking the pressure off Smith and launching a counter-attack that didn’t end until the umpires called stumps. As the Indian players trudged off the ground, having played the equivalent of two IPL games, it was clear who the day had belonged to.

Head’s ‘away’ average coming into the Test was 29.75, but in the last two years his average has been a splendid 58.86. And most of it has been built on the belligerent brand of batting that we witnessed on Day 1.

If India could have controlled the flow of runs, they might still have been okay. There is usually some cloud cover in the mornings and they would have had a chance to take some more wickets. But Head kept attacking and then at some point, Smith joined the party.

At some point in the second session, the sun came out in all its glory and the pitch transformed into a batting beauty. There was nothing for the bowlers there, or at least nothing for the Indian bowlers there. Maybe a more skilled crew would have extracted something more but Head and Smith simply hammered the confidence out of the Indian bowlers.

Head has 22 fours and a six while Smith has chipped in with 14 fours.

India have seen such days before, every Test side does, but for it to happen in the WTC final hurts. The problem for India, at this point, isn’t about how they are going to take 20 wickets. Rather, it is about the first 10.

Shami looked a little flat, as did Siraj. Yadav was equally poor, and though Thakur seemed to trouble the batters, there were simply too many loose balls on offer. Jadeja wasn’t able to block one end up either. With all the Indian bowlers conceding runs at over three runs an over, Sharma had no control over the proceedings. He could only hope and that is never a good strategy.

After a point, it almost seemed like they were just waiting for the day to end; waiting to get back to the dressing room and understand what they need to change on Day 2.

The task, though, won’t be easy. Early breakthroughs will help but if Australia survive the new ball and the first session, India might have another long day in the field. This kind of workload can’t be managed.

Head was having some trouble against the short ball but he kept going for the pull shot; kept backing himself and it all came off for him. India have seen Pant do this to their opponents but today, it was their turn.

This is the 18th time an Australian duo (Smith and Head) has registered a 200-plus partnership against India in men's Tests and the fourth occasion for the fourth wicket, after Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting did it thrice. But this stand has the potential to get even bigger.

In the pre-match conference, Indian skipper Sharma had mentioned that things can change on an almost daily basis at The Oval. His team-mates will be hoping that his words ring true on Day 2. Change is the need of the hour, or else India might find themselves with their backs to the wall far earlier than anticipated.

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