Not for the first time, India erred with its team composition to let the advantage slip on a big occasion. On a day when the sun shone brightly for the most part, India left out ace spinner R. Ashwin. The off-spinner watched from the sidelines even as The Oval pitch provided a tempting fare of uneven bounce.
A tenacious Australian batting line-up made the most of the miss, moving to a comfortable 327 for three at the end of the first day of the ICC World Test Championship final in London on Wednesday.
Ashwin’s absence hit home when Umesh Yadav, his replacement in the eleven, was handled with ease. Umesh, who came into the attack at first change, deflated the pressure built until this point, conceding four boundaries in his second over. It was a forgettable day for Umesh, who delivered 14 unimpressive overs without taking a wicket.
Ashwin, the top-ranked Test bowler in the world, has made a habit of working batters out. While success is not guaranteed, Ashwin, at a minimum, would have posed some tough questions to the batters. Ashwin’s impressive record against left-handers - Australia has no less than four southpaw batters - adds more weight to his case.
The selection gaffe was reminiscent of the events that unfolded in the 2021 WTC final against New Zealand.
Despite having the chance to change the eleven after the first day’s play was washed out at Southampton, India stuck to fielding two spinners. New Zealand, taking cognisance of the obvious seamer-friendly conditions, played five pacers. It came as no surprise when the Kiwis romped home by eight wickets.
At the Oval, Travis Head made the Indians pay. Head, given the license to go for his shots, raced to a 156-ball 146. The southpaw timed the ball exceptionally well, cutting and driving with authority. When he got settled in, Head used the uppercut to pepper the third-man region.
Head reached his century in 106 deliveries, with a hook off Shami. In the nineties, Head was severely tested by a barrage of bouncers from Siraj and Shami, but lived to fight another day.
Head thrived in the company of Steve Smith, who continued his dream run at this venue. Smith moved to within striking distance of recording his third century in four outings here. Smith and Head dominated the final session, scoring boundaries at will to run the Indians ragged.
In the morning session, Mohammed Siraj nicked off Usman Khawaja (0) to give India a good start. Siraj’s new ball partner Mohammad Shami was a tad short with his length, which allowed David Warner to sit on the back foot. Warner, who has struggled for runs, worked his way into form with a 60-ball 43. Warner fell against the run of play, gloving a long hop from Shardul Thakur to wicketkeeper K.S. Bharat.
Shami corrected his length after Lunch and gained immediate success. Marnus Labuschagne (26, 62b, 3x4) played all over a full floater which dipped in and took out the stumps. It was a shocker from Labuschagne, who left a massive, fatal gap between bat and pad.
Australia will be mighty pleased to emerge from a tricky situation unscathed. For India, there could be more long days in store.
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