Early Test at Oval adds to intrigue as India seek right combo
Venue has never hosted a Test in June and that could mean plenty of surprises; Rohit & Co to assess conditions until last minute before deciding on playing XI for battle against Australia in WTC final
LONDON: At 10.30 AM on Tuesday, one of the most popular sartorial choices was some sort of a sweater. The Oval was slightly overcast but more than the overhead conditions, the wind was having an effect. It was cold and you wanted a cup of steaming hot beverage to wake you up, especially if you have come from a place where 40*c has been the norm the last month.
It's the early part of the English summer, football has just finished, there's an Ashes around the corner and the trees are beginning to bloom. But the surest sign of leaving spring behind is the start of Test cricket following the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Days after the IPL finished, England opened their red-ball season with a comfortable 10-wicket win over Ireland in a one-off Test. After that one-off Test, the country is all ready to play host to another one-off Test, this one to identify the winner of the second World Test Championship cycle.
The match between India and Australia promises to be a fascinating battle between two bowling attacks that have consistently outperformed two stylish but fragile batting units.
While these two sides met in this format as recently as March, the difference between, say, New Delhi or Indore and The Oval couldn't be starker. One can even say it may not be fair to compare previous matches played at The Oval to this one. The earliest previous Test at this venue in the year was July 8, 1982 (Oval usually hosts one of the final Tests of the Summer).
Will that necessarily make a difference? Skipper Rohit Sharma doesn't think so. "We have been hearing about not much cricket being played here in June, but the county season actually has been played here," he said at the pre-match press conference. "We saw there was a game played a couple of weeks back here. So, it's not like it's the first game of the season on this ground. We are quite aware of what the conditions are, and what is going to happen in the next five days. The weather forecast looks all right. But yeah, in terms of the combination, I think it's better that we wait till tomorrow (Wednesday). That's a common answer (laugh), I think."
Now, The Oval is one of those grounds that closely resembles the sub-continent in that it follows the template of assisting spin as the match wears on.
The last time India played at the venue was September 2021 and the seamers accounted for 17 of the first 19 wickets. While Ravindra Jadeja got increasing purchases in England's second innings, Jasprit Bumrah also got the ball to hoop inwards. Sharma was mindful of that.
"When we played the last Test match here in Oval, it looked very similar to this. And then as the game went on, as the day went on, it got better and better, slower and slower. And the reverse swing came into play as well on Day Five. So, yeah, we're going to consider all of those factors and see what will be the right combination for us to go."
Right now, though, they seem to be battling with the age-old conundrum of whether to leave Ravichandran Ashwin out for a seaming all-rounder like Shardul Thakur (he made two blazing half-centuries and picked up three wickets in that match in September). The combination of the earlier start, a likely cold beginning and the pitch having a greenish tinge may mean going against the former.
"I have not said that Ashwin is not going to play. We will wait until tomorrow (Wednesday) — because one thing I have seen here — the pitch actually changes quite a bit from day to day. Today it's looking the way it is. Tomorrow it might be slightly different, who knows."
On Tuesday evening, the sun was finally out after playing hide and seek the entire day. For India, blue skies and a dry surface will always be comfort food and they will hope for that.
Sharma hit on the thumb
At India's optional practice session, Sharma was hit on the thumb. After continuing to play after taping the area, he stopped after some time. Only four of the 15 players of the touring party turned up for the session.