The contest between India and Australia has now reached never-seen-before heights. It has comfortably thrown the Ashes out of the window and any other cricketing rivalry that there is as India-Australia clashes have become the most anticipated ones of the lot. And no, it's not the verbal spats, it's the quality of cricketers on display, the see-saw matches, the stakes at play, and new players claiming world supremacy with every passing series.
And after years of rip-roaring contests and the Border-Gavaskar Trophy not changing hands since 2019, it all comes to India and Australia facing each other at The Oval to determine the second ultimate champion of Test cricket. It is also fitting that the top two Test teams fight it out for the mace, carried aloft by Kane Williamson after overcoming India in Southampton two years ago.
On the occasion of the final, it's tough not to put into perspective India's tendency to falter at this stage. Unlike their road to the previous final, their journey to the forthcoming one has been dramatic. India faced a tricky task after pulling out of the 5th Test against England in 2021 and failing to force a win later that year against New Zealand in Kanpur. The equation became trickier after South Africa stunned their mighty side in early 2022 and England's 'Bazball' laid waste to Jasprit Bumrah-led tourists in the rescheduled 5th Test at Edgbaston.
India's tricky road to the WTC final:
However, India gained a foothold after winning two each against Bangladesh and Australia. Yet, their lone spot in the final wasn't etched until New Zealand ousted Sri Lanka in a thriller at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch. And unlike the last final against New Zealand, Rohit Sharma must head to the Oval with his troops bereft of Rishabh Pant and Jasprit Bumrah - two of their best overseas performers.
Yet, the Indian team on paper, is no pushover, especially when they have a rock-solid Cheteshwar Pujara at number three, the indomitable Virat Kohli, the return of the monk Ajinkya Rahane, the wily Ravindra Jadeja, and the metronomic Mohammed Shami. Yes, India's record at The Oval is not the most impressive, but it was the same before they pulled off the Gabba heist with a vastly inexperienced side.
Australia's impeccable seam bowlers hands them a slight edge:
Meanwhile, Australia will know India have been their kryptonite over the years, even as they have played almost their best side. Australia's road to the final was also smooth until they ran into India in their backyard earlier this year. While Australia kept improving with every Test they played, India had enough firepower to topple the tourists.
However, things could take a different turn when these two teams clash at a neutral venue, as Australia's seamers will come into play. While Josh Hazlewood is an asset that Pat Cummins will miss, he will be aware of the damage Scott Boland, who has gotten the nod ahead of Michael Neser, can cause.
The WTC final could also be the start of the end of David Warner's Test career, having expressed his desire to quit the format after the summer. Mohammed Shami sending his stumps cartwheeling on day one in Nagpur will go through Warner's minds and it could prove a long winter, with Stuart Broad also waiting in the wings to start from where he left off in 2019. While India's focus might be more on Australia's number three and four, they will know that the middle-order and the tailender's pesky nature can hurt them, as the Black Caps did in Southampton.
Here are a few angles ahead of the WTC final between India and Australia:
Australia: Strengths and weaknesses:
Their three-pronged seam attack, consisting of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, and Scott Boland is their greatest asset. The presence of another seam-bowling all-rounder in Cameron Green further strengthens them and an experienced spinner in Nathan Lyon adds more value. A solid number three and number four in Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith along with their recent experience of county cricket puts them in good stead.
However, their biggest weakness remains David Warner, who has been out of form in Test cricket for a while now. Warner remains vulnerable to right-arm bowlers from around the wicket. India have two potent weapons in Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj, to expose it. An early wicket could expose Labuschagne and Smith to the new ball.
India: strengths and weaknesses:
Besides skipper Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, and Cheteshwar Pujara are in exquisite touch, having the Australian bowlers' task cut out. Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami also stepped up in the IPL for their franchises, boosting India's hopes ahead of the contest.
India's supposed weakness could be a lack of red-ball game time, barring Pujara, who plied his trade for Sussex during the IPL 2023. Along with Rohit Sharma's form, the absence of Rishabh Pant and Jasprit Bumrah also poses questions. India's team combination will be interesting to see since there might be a temptation to play two spinners, given the chances of the venue offering spin later in the game.