India v Australia: Rahul vs Gill and other selection conundrums ahead of WTC final


India secured its place in the ICC World Test Championship final against Australia at The Oval starting on June 7, after a last-ball win for New Zealand ended Sri Lanka’s push for a top-two finish. India lost the inaugural World Test Championship final to New Zealand in 2021.

India began its campaign for the current cycle in England, taking a 2-1 lead against the then-captain Joe Root’s team in 2021 before the fifth Test was rescheduled due to Covid-19 concerns. Rohit Sharma’s men eventually lost the rescheduled fifth Test in Birmingham in 2022. However, series wins against New Zealand (home), Sri Lanka (home) and Bangladesh (away) firmed up India’s bid, which was capped off by the 2-1 Border-Gavaskar series win at home.

On the other hand, Australia’s route to the WTC final was built on the back of a 4-0 Ashes win at home, a historic series win in Pakistan and victories against West Indies (home) and South Africa (home).

Ahead of the summit clash between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 Test teams, here are the key takeaways from the recently concluded four-match series between the two.

Has Shubman Gill pipped K. L. Rahul into Test XI?

Rahul lost his place to Gill after scoring just 38 runs in the first two matches. Gill made the most of the opportunity, eking out a brilliant 128 off 235 balls in Ahmedabad — his fifth hundred in the last 10 innings across formats. Gill’s back-foot play is the most attractive trait of his batting. However, his strength could also prove to be his undoing on the seaming pitches in England, where a confident forward stride and not chasing the ball in the channel are pivotal ingredients of success — Rahul showed precisely those qualities in abundance during his Test century at Lord’s in 2021.

Rahul’s Test comeback has been a curious cocktail of spellbinding highs and curious lows. He was not part of the first-choice Test XI at the start of 2021 but ended up captaining India in the team’s first Test of 2022. However, his form with the bat has been a concern of late, with the opener managing scores of 22, 23, 10, 2, 20, 17 and 1 in his last seven innings.

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But five years ago, Rahul had achieved a rare feat of scoring his first five Test centuries in different countries after hitting 149 in the fourth innings of the final Test against England at The Oval, venue for the WTC final. Recently during the Indore Test, Rohit said “anyone with potential will be given an extended run,” when asked if Rahul’s removal from Test vice-captaincy had anything to do with his lean patch.

Meanwhile, the kind of purple patch Gill has enjoyed would normally buy a player an extended run in the side. Agreed, his hundred against Australia came in batting-friendly conditions, where unlike the previous Tests, the ball did not turn savagely from footmarks. But India can ill-afford to ignore Gill’s unique shot-making abilities – hitting length balls from close to his body through cover or mid-wicket –especially when the top-order has been found wanting.

Suffice to say, Rahul vs Gill will be one selection quandary before the first ball is bowled at the Oval.

Indian pace attack sans Bumrah

India will miss the services of pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah at The Oval. Bumrah underwent back surgery recently and is racing against time to be fit for the ODI World Cup, to be played at home in India in October-November this year. The nagging stiffness in his right glute had also ruled Bumrah out of the Border-Gavaskar series at home. That said, much like Australia’s bouncy pitches or England’s seamers, India dished out spin-friendly pitches — in conditions that seemingly suited the hosts more — with the one at the Holkar Stadium in Indore being a rank turner. It meant R. Ashwin (166.3 overs), Axar Patel (86 overs), and Ravindra Jadeja (161.1 overs) shared the bulk of the bowling workload with pacers Mohammed Shami (69.1 overs), Mohammed Siraj (24 overs) and Umesh Yadav (37 overs) merely acting as support casts.

Purple patch: Shubman Gill is in red-hot form for India. In Ahmedabad, he scored his second Test century – his fifth in 10 innings across formats.
| Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

In all likelihood, Shami and Siraj will be the two frontline quicks with one of Umesh, Shardul Thakur and Jaydev Unadkat likely to round up the pace triumvirate. In the last WTC final, India fielded two spinners, Jadeja and Ashwin. It meant India had only five specialist batters, followed by wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant. The 3-2 pace-spin combination did not work for India then, as it lost to New Zealand by eight wickets. The attack was more perspiring than inspiring. Having said that, head coach Rahul Dravid and Rohit could still decide against a four-man pace attack and instead opt for the 3-2 bowling makeup since a majority of the players, likely to make the cut for the WTC final squad, will play no competitive red-ball cricket between now and June and instead, ply their trade in the Indian Premier League. Thakur, for instance, has been India’s preferred pace-bowling all-rounder in overseas conditions but has not played competitive cricket in over a month. Rohit has said the bowlers’ workloads will be monitored closely during the IPL and hoped that any Test players, whose teams don’t qualify for the IPL knockouts, would be able to fly to England early to acclimatise to the conditions. “Around May 21, there will be six teams who would possibly be out of the IPL. So, whichever players are available, we will try and find some time to see if they can reach the U.K. as early as possible and get some time there,” Rohit said. The bowlers will also have to deal with the challenge of operating with the Dukes ball that is used for Tests in England, as opposed to the SG or Kookaburra. “We’re sending some new Dukes balls to all the fast bowlers as well to get them some time with that,” Rohit has said. “All of us have played in that [England] part of the world so I don’t think it’s going be a huge problem. But, yeah, I believe in preparation, and preparation again is going to be key for us come the finals.”

And with no warm-up match scheduled ahead of the WTC final, the Indian backroom brains trust has a high-stakes bowling puzzle to solve.

The Aussie conundrum

Australia sealed its place in the WTC final with a win in Indore earlier this month. Although it has now lost the last four editions of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, it has positives to take home. Nathan Lyon’s 22 wickets at 2.59 made this the off-spinner’s most successful of three tours to India, while opener Usman Khawaja’s 333 runs at 47.57 reaffirmed his versatility. Meanwhile, another chapter was added to Cameron Green’s evolution as a star all-rounder with his first Test century. His importance will be amplified on the seamer-friendly pitches of England. Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head exhibited commendable performances against spin by relying on their defensive technique and competence in strokeplay. Head’s resurgence at the top creates a selection headache for Australia, which also has to weigh in on the imminent return of David Warner. Warner had left Australia’s tour of India after the second Test in Delhi (26 runs at an average of 8.66 in three innings), where he was subbed out with a concussion. He had also picked up a hairline fracture in his elbow. Amid ongoing retirement talks, former Australia captain Ricky Ponting has suggested Warner needs to do well in the WTC final to prove he should play the Ashes this year. Warner has historically struggled against the swinging ball in England and averages 26 from 25 innings to date.

On the fast bowling front, Australia was without regular skipper Pat Cummins — in the last two Tests — and Josh Hazlewood but will most likely field its first-choice pace bowling attack come June.

Australia had missed out on a place in the last WTC final due to over-rate penalties, but its path to The Oval this time has been strewn with home dominance and vital away wins. However, much like India, Australia too will have to grapple with continuity issues with many of its red-ball stars set to feature in the IPL.

The team that navigates the continuity and condition challenges adroitly could very well lay its hands on the WTC crown.

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