March 18, 2023: The battle for India to qualify for the final of the World Test Championship being held at the Oval in England on June 7, 2023 was definitely a nail-biter.
Sri Lanka was the only side that could have ruined India’s chances of qualifying and they nearly did so. A win off the last ball of a Test match by New Zealand against Sri Lanka was the closest finish one could ever imagine.
New Zealand’s former captain, Kane Williamson, scrambled to get the last run and managed to reach the crease through the closest of margins. This was Test cricket at its best and one that will keep it flourishing in the future.
India, being severely criticised for doctoring wickets at home, fell shy at the most critical juncture. With a 2-1 lead and a victory to seal their place in the World Test final, India in Ahmedabad produced a pitch that was a paradise for batters. Maybe the presence of both the country leaders played a part in it. After all, one did not want to see batting becoming a juggling art rather than a sweet and serene array of stroke-play.
One was expecting a turning track and one that would ensure a result. The noise of criticism must have got under the skin of the curator and to avoid any further embarrassment, he produced a typical slow, unresponsive wicket. Both the Australian as well as the Indian batters made full use of it. For India, the young Shubman Gill established himself as a classy batsman who will rock the cricketing world in the near future.
The cherry on the cake was the century that had evaded India’s star batter, Virat Kohli, finally came to life. Virat, has been the backbone of Indian cricket and to get him back on track mentally as a champion will augur well for India.
Australia showed us why they are such a tough side in all conditions. They were humiliated and beaten to pulp in the first two Test matches and came through with flying colours, thereafter. Although Australia may feel confident, the truth of the matter is that they have lost the last four Test series to India, both at home and away. This itself shows how India have the edge and are the favourites to win the highest honour of cricket – The World Test Championship.
The beginning of June in London is always very tricky as regards the weather. England has had snow in March and one expects a wet and cold start to their cricket season in June. In the years gone-by, India was always made to tour England then and the outcome was that the spinners that India boasted of, became ineffective.
The cold and wet Duke ball made it difficult to grip and both the finger and wrist spinners suffered the consequences. India’s area of concern will not be the batters for this one match encounter but the bowling unit of the playing eleven. The problematic issue that arises is whether India should pursue with the recent successful performers or go for a specialized playing XI for the conditions that they will encounter.
The wickets in England in June are more suitable for swing bowlers and so India will require to go in with four seamers. Unfortunately, none of the front-line fast bowlers are good batters and Shardul Thakur, the only one who had shown some potential, has not infused any confidence.
One was, therefore, surprised at the statement made by Hardik Pandya recently, stating that he would not like to replace or be part of the World Test Championship. His reason was most unconvincing, as he felt that he has not put in the hard-work required to play the longer format of the game, and therefore, is not fit to replace any of the existing Test players.
Hardik may feel his potential is to play white ball cricket, however, he is India’s only option of a quick bowling all-rounder. The Indian selectors need to emphasise the importance of his presence and if need be, Hardik, should be told to get himself physically and mentally fit for the task.
Srikar Bharat or KL Rahul as the wicketkeeper could be another debatable issue that comes to mind. Rahul should get the nod, especially for his batting. He has scored a big hundred at the Oval in the past and is a player who could steady the ship if the top batters fail. Bharat was a good option on the turning Indian tracks, however, in England the wicketkeeper stands back as the conditions are more conducive for fast bowling rather than spin.
Australia, on the other hand, have been preparing for the Ashes series to be played later on in the season in England. They have the pace attack and players who are more accustomed to the English conditions as well.
India, due to the paucity of time, fell short to prepare for the one Test match final when they played New Zealand in the inaugural World Test Championship. India needs to ensure that they do not repeat the same folly. They need each of their Test players to be ready and focused this time around.
The IPL is a T20 circus, which is commercially good for Indian cricket, however, it is the three years of hard labour that has culminated in India getting another chance to win the most prestigious of cricket trophies and to be crowned the World Test Champions.
It would be just the prize that Indian cricket and cricket lovers would applaud, especially after nearly a decade of emptiness that has engulfed them.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Test cricketer. Views expressed are personal.)