WTC Final 2023: Hard calls cause 'Head-ache' for Rohit and India
Decision to bowl first in the summit clash with four seamers and a lone spinner did not go India’s way on Day One against Australia
LONDON: In damp, dank conditions, India refused to change their XI after naming it a day before the official start of play. With no play possible on the opening day and with more rain forecast, they stuck to their same XI at the toss more than 40 hours later.
Their rationale at the time -- the inaugural edition of the World Test Championship against New Zealand in 2021 -- was 'to take the pitch and condition out of the equation'. At least that was the official explanation offered at the time by fielding coach, R Sridhar. While this may sound like post-facto analysis, that was the wrong call. New Zealand went in with zero spinners and five seamers, including Colin de Grandhomme's genteel pace.
Two years later, it seems like they wanted to take the 'pitch and conditions into the equation' but only succeeded in misreading both of them. On a greenish pitch with some cloud cover, Rohit Sharma called heads and opted to ball first. When the team sheet landed, they had gone for the mercurial options of Shardul Thakur and Umesh Yadav over Ravichandran Ashwin.
Just after tea, Ashwin, who was running the drinks at times, was leaning against one of the walls on the dugout, while wearing a blank expression on his face. If given a chance, Sharma would have brought him on as an Impact Player before lunch. This is even before you consider Ashwin's record against left-handers (Australia have four in the top seven).
Instead, he had to resort to hiding Umesh Yadav, the third seamer in the XI, in the post-lunch session. Because you don't get a great degree of control with Yadav -- he gets a majority of his wickets while attacking the stumps and isn't somebody who targets the outside edge all that often -- Sharma wanted to stem the rot.
His second over of the morning was a harbinger of things to come. The overcast skies were already making their way from The Oval when David Warner broke free with four fours all through the off-side. Short, wide and asking to be hit. Warner obliged by taking the aerial route. The net effect of the decision to not play Ashwin meant Shami and Siraj were overworked. In all, the duo bowled 39 out of the 85 overs that were bowled across multiple spells.
The decision to leave out Ashwin wasn't the only one that came back to bite India. Even the call to bowl first seems to have been dictated by overhead conditions that didn't last for much more than one session. When the Kiwis made their decision against India at Southampton in 2021, they were informed by the forecast that said lots of rain. The lights were on and the surface was sweating under the covers for days.
There was none of it at The Oval. It's been one of the driest Mays on record in the UK, there is no forecast for rain for at least the first three days and there was no danger of the floodlights being switched on.
In corporate parlance, they didn't control the controllables even before the start of play. To make matters worse, they failed to find the right areas when the conditions remained heavy. They were a touch short on occasions; Shami himself could have been a touch fuller. When Marnus Labuschagne decided to bat at least a couple of foot outside the stumps to negate whatever movement was available, the bowlers weren't proactive enough to send him back inside the crease ('keeper KS Bharat did come up to the stumps for Shardul Thakur).
Some of their bowling against Travis Head also left much to be desired. He's had a weakness to bumpers aimed at his body but most of the bumpers bowled to him were away from the body. On the odd occasions he fended those raising bouncers, he did so in the knowledge that there was no leg-gully. Thursday morning will again bring with it heavy conditions before ample afternoon sunshine. If India are to get themselves back in the game, they need to use those conditions. Otherwise, this could already be out of their comfort zone.