WTC final: Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli hit the nets at balmy Oval before showdown clash with Australia

By, London
Jun 05, 2023 08:49 AM IST

Rohit Sharma and the full squad sweat it out under mild London sun in preparation for the World Test Championship final against Australia starting on Wednesday

It was a great day to play cricket at Surrey, the place that will play host to the final of the World Test Championship. The sun was out, everyone seemed to have opened the sunroofs of their car, the cyclists were out in force as well and a few of them were hunting for Team India autographs just outside The Oval… it was neither too hot, nor too cold. Precisely the kind of conditions that bring the best out of the batters, the bowlers, and perhaps the fans too.

Team India at The Oval in London(Twitter/@BCCI)
Team India at The Oval in London(Twitter/@BCCI)

The cricket, though, had to wait. It wasn’t time yet. The date, June 7, is almost upon us. The venue is flying the World Test Championship flags. The pitch looks green and the groundsman was giving it a healthy meal of water before the covers were put on late in the evening. The finishing touches are still being put on the ground but The Oval will be ready to host its first-ever Test in June when India and Australia clash.

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The buzz for the moment seems non-existent but it’ll build up no doubt. The International Cricket Council thinks that this is a neutral venue but when India are involved, can any venue remain neutral? From the ground and the pitch conditions perspective, it might be. But there is only one team the crowd will be backing.

India had a nets session and they all turned up. It wasn’t an optional nets session where almost no one turns up, which has almost become the norm. For a change, the squad was out in full force for reasons ranging from the occasion to acclimatisation; from getting in a good Test-quality workout to places in the playing XI being up for grabs.

The nets sessions in IPL are often almost exclusively for those who can’t get into the playing XI. Those who do play are either too tired or simply have to manage their workload. So, the only true practice they get is in the match itself. That is good practice, but it doesn’t allow you to get down and simply play.

While things seem to be mostly sorted on the batting front — Shubman Gill and Rohit Sharma as openers, Cheteshwar Pujara at No. 3, Virat Kohli at No. 4, Ajinkya Rahane at No. 5 — the doubts creep in thereafter.

KS Bharat has got the nod ahead of Ishan Kishan so far but is that truly the right move for India? Should they instead opt for the latter — not a like-for-like replacement for the proven Rishabh Pant but close enough. The nets also represent a chance to impress.

On the bowling side of things, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj will certainly play. But the remaining slots have some very solid options.

R Ashwin has increasingly shown himself to be a bowler who takes the pitch conditions out of the equation, his batting too is proving to be a healthy bonus. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the batting of India’s lower order has saved the team the blushes multiple times.

But should that be the approach here? Or should the team have done as Kohli would have? In a knockout match, you have to go for the win. Kohli would have definitely played five bowlers.

“I don't believe in that balance and I have never believed in that balance because either you can try and save a defeat or you can try and win a game. And we have drawn games in the past with a similar number of batters,” Kohli, then the India captain, had said after the third Test against England in 2021.

He had added: “If your top six (including keeper) don't do the job, there is no guarantee that the extra guy can bail you out. You have to take pride in taking responsibility and doing the job for the team. If you don't have the ability or resources to take 20 wickets in a Test match, then you are already playing for two results and that's not how we play.”

But Rohit and Dravid haven’t given any such clear signals. They want to win, of course, but the ‘how’ part isn’t as clear-cut as it once was. So, they could float towards the safety that a sixth batter can theoretically provide or simply trust the all-round instincts of the lower order to do the job.

That again means everyone has a chance of making the playing XI. It keeps them all on their toes and in the nets. Shardul Thakur and Jaydev Unadkat are in the mix as are Axar Patel and Ashwin.

For now, the guessing game is on in full swing. Will the pitch stay green? Will the skies stay blue? Will India play four seamers? Will two spinners get a go? The fact that you can simply sit and talk about a game when almost everything seems such a blur is also one of the great joys of Test cricket.

So, after the manic madness of IPL, enjoy the slow down, and let the debates simmer a little bit more for, ready or not, the time of the final tasting is almost upon us.

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