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What India can learn from the last WTC final and subsequent tour of England

Almost two years after losing to New Zealand in the inaugural edition of the World Test Championship (WTC) final, India are back in England for a second consecutive shot at the title, from today (Wednesday, June 7) at the Oval in London.

The obvious question is if India would be able to lay their hands on the trophy this time. The answer will slowly reveal itself over the course of five days, could be less.

Having qualified for the second straight final, India have proven their quality as a Test side and shown consistency over two two-year cycles despite the change of captain – from Virat Kohli to Rohit Sharma – and coach – from Ravi Shastri to Rahul Dravid.

However, it can’t be said with confidence that India have a better chance than what they had two years ago of emerging victorious at the end of this winners-take-all contest. For, on any given day, Australia are a far tougher side to face, especially in a final, than New Zealand (no disrespect to the 2021 WTC champions). Also, India are missing their ace pacer Jasprit Bumrah, a match-winner in any format, due to an injury.

India finished second, behind leaders Australia, in the WTC points table after the end of the league round where they played 18 Tests – 10 wins, 5 losses, 3 draws. (Australia played 19 Tests with 11 wins, 3 losses and 5 draws.) Out of 18, India played 10 Tests away from home. Eight of those 10 Tests were in pace-friendly conditions of England and South Africa. India won three, lost four and drawn one. Quite a mixed result but encouraging one.

But that’s in the past. And the past, if one is diligent enough to learn, could impart a lesson or two for the future. Lesson No. 1
Jog your memory back a bit. Right after their defeat in the 2021 Final, India played a five-Test series against England. The fourth Test was played at the same ground where the 2023 WTC final would be held.

Of course, no two Tests are the same, not even similar. And conditions are also going to be slightly, if not completely, different this time around. The last time India stepped on to The Oval it was the start of September; pleasant autumn winds were blowing across London. June, on the other hand, is the beginning of summer in England; it is warm and dry.

What India can take from their experience from two years back is the familiarity with the ground – Australia last played at this ground in 2019 – and confidence. India won that match after trailing by 99 runs in the first innings, thanks to a brilliant 127 by Rohit Sharma. Both India and their captain can draw a lot of confidence and look at the things that worked for them in that match.

Confidence is important for Indians batters in general, and Rohit in particular. Indian batters usually struggle in England where the ball moves laterally a lot, both on and off the pitch. New Zealand used a five-pronged pace attack to outplay India in the 2021 final. Australia might employ a similar strategy and unleash their top-quality pace battery.

Coming straight from the white ball, flat-track, slam-bang world of the IPL, a week is probably too short a period to make the switch, both mentally and technically, to the red ball, swing-friendly, patience-requiring world of Test cricket in England. Though modern-day cricketers are used to the demands of making quick mental changes to suit different formats, it’s easier said than done. But they can take confidence from the fact that they conquered these conditions just two years ago. They need to believe they can do it again.

Probably no one needs this belief more than Rohit, who just couldn’t get going in the IPL. Though it was a different format, nothing boosts a batter’s belief more than the runs under the belt. Rohit was India’s top scorer on that tour. He could look back and regain his confidence. A confident captain is crucial for India’s chances in the match.

Lesson No. 2
Going into the 2021 WTC final against New Zealand, India were marginal favourites. The tag was less about logic and more about partisanship. It was proved so as India unravelled against New Zealand’s pace. The reading of the pitch by the two sides was interesting. While the Kiwis felt the need to play five pacers, India included two spinners in the eleven.

In the run-up to the 2023 WTC final, once again there are talks of having two spinners in the eleven. It could just be speculations. Or India may not have learnt their lesson from the past experiences. That seam bowling is more effective in England is not perception, it’s a fact. In the last 10 years at The Oval, pacers have claimed 234 wickets as opposed to 64 by spinners. Hence, two spinners are probably a luxury that India can’t afford to have. They paid a heavy price the last time.

Some rain is also predicted on the fourth and fifth days of the match. These are the two days when spinners play a bigger role owing to natural wear and tear in the pitch. But if it rains, the cloud cover and moisture could reduce spinners’ effectiveness even on the last two days and increase pacers’ role in deciding the match’s outcome.

But which spinner should India go with: Ravindra Jadeja or Ravichandran Ashwin? After playing both against New Zealand, India did not give Ashwin a single game against England despite him taking four wickets on a pace-friendly pitch in the WTC final in Southampton. Jadeja played all five and took only six wickets.

Jadeja is definitely a better batter, but Ashwin is also not bad with the bat. The veteran off-spinner has five Test centuries to his name. On the other hand, Ashwin is a better bowler in comparison to Jadeja, and he is very effective against left-hand batters. Australia could have as many as five left-handers in their eleven. Do your math.

Bonus: The battle between two of the greatest off-spinners of all time – Nathan Lyon and Ashwin – will add more excitement to the final.

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