The Indian Premier League (IPL) 2023 had the perfect climax with a rain-disrupted final that went into the early hours of the day following the reserve day. The thousands, who flocked to the stadium on a Monday evening and stayed there braving a sharp shower, were treated to an exciting finish that saw Ravindra Jadeja work his “jaadu” to snatch a victory for Chennai Super Kings. The picture of Mahindra Singh Dhoni closing his eyes when the last ball was being bowled summed up the high-octane emotions and tensions that swept across the entire country at that moment. It was indeed a fitting finale to a championship that had more than its share of outstanding performances with both the bat and the ball as well as close finishes of the nail-biting variety.
Hardly had the curtains been pulled down on the IPL extravaganza than the eyeballs zoomed to London where action is scheduled to start on Wednesday when India meet Australia in the final of the World Test Championship (WTC) at The Oval. Indian players who were not part of the teams that qualified for the IPL playoffs had left the shores of the country during the last week of May to get acclimatised with the conditions in England. The remaining members joined their teammates after the final so that the team could have some practice sessions as a unit for a few days before the final. The Aussies, meanwhile, have landed there for a long tour as they are playing a full fledged Ashes series against England following the WTC final.
The whole concept of the WTC is a recent phenomenon and the culmination of deliberations during the past decades to have a tournament for deciding the top cricketing nation in the oldest version of the game. The increasing popularity of the limited overs version had dampened interest in this format. The poor attendance at the venues where Test matches were played coupled with the importance given by the young players to the newer versions raised apprehensions that longer duration games may soon become extinct. But conducting a championship among close to 10 sides, where each match was played over five days posed a challenge. Many suggestions were offered, including one where the top four ranking teams met in the semifinals and the winners thereof played the final. However, none fitted the bill and it was only in 2017 that a solution emerged where in the top nine sides would play series against each other over two years, followed by the two top ranking teams meeting in the finals.
After many an uncertainty, this championship took off in 2019. Calling the event as a championship is a bit of a misnomer as it is very different from the conventional tournaments. In the first place, this is played over a long period of time, at different venues. Further, only the final is hosted by the International Cricket Council (ICC). All the matches are held by the member countries as part of their bilateral series and the broadcasting rights, which bring in the revenue, rests with the host countries. But, despite these angularities and the restrictions brought into force due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first edition of the WTC concluded in June, 2021, with India taking on New Zealand in the finals The victory in this game made New Zealand the inaugural champions of this tournament.
The second edition of the WTC kicked off in August, 2021. Australia and India qualified for the final based in the performances in the bilateral series played during the window between start of the championship and March, 2023. Australia won 11 out of the 19 Tests they played in, and drew five, thus getting a total of 152 points out of the maximum 228 (66.7 per cent). India won 10 of their 18 Tests, losing five out of the remaining eight, and ended with 127 points (58.8 per cent). India were also docked five points for slow over rates in some games. South Africa came third, with eight wins in 15 games and 100 points. England, who played the largest number of matches (22), ended up fourth with 10 victories and four draws. Though they had 124 points, they finished at a lower position than South Africa as their point percentage (of the maximum possible points) was only 47 as against 55.6 of the latter. New Zealand, the 2021 winners finished sixth, behind Sri Lanka.
In many ways, the final between India and Australia offers the perfect finish to this championship as the two sides are, without doubt, among the top ones in international cricket. The series between these two teams, played in India in the earlier part of the year, showed how intense and close this contest could be. Australia bounced back in style, after losing the first two Tests by a big margin, to defeat the hosts in the third Test. Further, both sides are highly competitive and aggressive and clashes between them have seen sparks fly on the field and off it as well. Hence the final also promises to provide high-voltage drama and excitement.
It is hazardous to make a prediction in any sport and this principle applies more so in cricket, where upsets and surprise results happen with an amazing frequency. But, if injuries to individual players in the national squad are an indicator, India definitely appear to be on the back foot even before a ball has been bowled. Jasprit Bumrah, the spearhead of the Indian pace attack, Rishabh Pant, the outstanding wicketkeeper-batsman, Shreyas Iyer, a vital cog in the middle order, and K L Rahul, the mercurial top order batter, are missing from the squad on account of injuries. Australia, on the other hand, have only pacer Josh Hazlewood unavailable and will take the field with a strong XI when action commences on Wednesday.
But this does not mean that Australia starts as the odds-on favorite. The Indian top order, consisting of skipper Rohit Sharma, Subhuman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, is arguably the best in world cricket at the moment. Gill, is in tremendous form, as seen from the mountains of runs he has made in the IPL, while Pujara is on a roll hitting hundreds almost at will for Sussex in the county championship. Kohli too has been among the runs in the IPL and only Rohit appears to be struggling at the moment. The next place in the batting order will be taken up by Ajinkya Rahane, who is on a comeback trail. The next three slots will, in all likelihood see Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin, the spin bowling all-rounders, and KS Bharat, the wicketkeeper. Three fast bowlers from amongst the four - Mohamed Shami, Mohamed Siraj, Shardul Thakur and Umesh Yadav - will take the remaining places in the eleven. If the team management decides to opt for four fast bowlers, then Ashwin will be forced to sit out.
Australia’s batting rests on the seasoned trio of David Warner, Steven Smith and Marcus Labuschagne. Usman Khawaja and Cameron Green ended up the last series against India with centuries against their names in the last Test while Travis Head will be looking to prove a point. But it is the pace bowling attack of Mitchell Starc, Scott Boland and captain Pat Cummins who hold the key to their fortunes. If they are able to get early break throughs and pin down the Indian top order, then the advantage will rest with the Aussies. Spinners Nathan Lyon and Todd Murphy bowled exceedingly well in India, but it is unlikely that they will get similar returns while bowling in England.
Followers of the game of my generation from India hold many fond memories about The Oval. It was here that India recorded their first ever win in a Test in England in 1971. It was at this ground that we came very close to a stupendous win in 1979, while chasing a target of 438 runs in the last innings. Further, we did not lose any match here for many decades since the 1950s. However, the second decade of this century saw India losing three tests in as many series here, which saddened us considerably. This trend was reversed in 2021, when we defeated England by 157 runs in the fourth Test of the series. We will know whether India’s lucky charm at this venue continues to hold when play gets underway.
The WTC is the only trophy instituted by the ICC that India have not won till date. Let us wish Rohit and his team good luck as they embark on the mission to add this medallion to the cupboard of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)