Rested Australia take on India in World Test Championship final

Rested Australia take on India in World Test Championship final
Pat Cummins of Australia reacts after a half chance from Sarel Erwee of South Africa to Travis Head of Australia on day four of the third test at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 7 January 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / David Neilson)

Most of Australia’s side haven’t played a professional cricket match in months as they head into the World Test Championship final on Wednesday.

India and Australia have had contrasting journeys to the World Test Championship (WTC) final, which takes place from Wednesday at the Oval Stadium in Surrey, England.

Australia have been on top of the WTC standings since the start of the new cycle at the back end of 2021.

In fact, the Aussies have only lost three of their 19 matches this cycle – two of those losses were at the hands of India in February this year.

India, on the other hand, scraped into the final after a late resurgence of form as well as South Africa and Sri Lanka surrendering their favourable positions against strong opposition in Australia and New Zealand respectively, away from home.

Nevertheless, the final is likely to be tightly contested between two of the best cricket-playing nations in the World.

India captain Virat Kohli celebrates after Jasprit Bumrah gets the wicket of South Africa captain Dean Elgar at Newlands in Cape Town on 13 January 2022. (Photo: © Ryan Wilkisky / BackpagePix)

To IPL or not to IPL?

India will have been part of both of the WTC finals, having lost to New Zealand by eight wickets at the Rose Bowl in Southampton in June 2021.

On this occasion they have been rocked by injuries and will be without key players Rishabh Pant, Jasprit Bumrah, KL Rahul and Shreyas Iyer.

Josh Hazlewood is the only regular squad member who is absent for Australia, due to a side strain picked up while representing the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the recently concluded Indian Premier League (IPL). He has been replaced by Michael Neser.

Stalwart Indian batter Cheteshwar Pujara was the only member of India’s 15-member WTC squad who didn’t play in the IPL – he represented Sussex in county cricket in England instead.

Hazlewood aside, Australia’s IPL representation was low. Only opener David Warner and all-rounder Cameron Green exhibited their skills in the IPL among their squad.

Neser, Steven Smith, Marcus Harris and Marnus Labuschagne have been playing county cricket.

Coming in fresh without any cricket, is that better? Or is it coming in maybe slightly jaded, slightly tired on the back of an IPL, but having played a lot of cricket leading in?

The other members of Australia’s squad have not been playing any cricket at a professional level. Neither team has played Test cricket since the four-match series between the two nations ended in early March.

From the outside, both teams seem undercooked for a match this vital, with Australia particularly underdone.

“Yeah, they [breaks] are rare to come by,” Aussie skipper Pat Cummins told the media this week after electing to not participate in the IPL this year.

“We try to take a break when we can. I’ve always said that we have got six Test matches in the next two months, I’d much prefer to be slightly underdone than overdone. That’s from a bowler’s point of view,” added Cummins as Australia move into a five-match Ashes series against England straight after the WTC final.

Pat Cummins (second from right) of Australia celebrates the wicket of South Africa’s Dean Elgar at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 8 January 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Dean Lewins)

“I always feel like it doesn’t take too much to kind of get ready. And then I want to make sure I’m fresh physically for the matches.”

Australian cricket legend Ricky Ponting conversely worried about the lack of cricket in his compatriots’ legs.

“As far as preparation is concerned, some of the Australians have done nothing – they haven’t been playing any cricket at all,” Ponting said.

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“At least all the Indian guys have been playing very competitive cricket in the IPL. So, coming in fresh without any cricket, is that better? Or is it coming in maybe slightly jaded, slightly tired on the back of an IPL, but having played a lot of cricket leading in? There’s lots of factors that could show up through the course of this week.”

Travis Head of Australia with a missed opportunity against South Africa in Sydney on 8 January 2023. (Photo: EPA / Dean Lewins)

Test cricket’s fight for survival

The WTC final has been relatively mute in its build-up to an event so important on the cricket calendar. The WTC – which started in 2019 – was intended to give more meaning to bilateral Test series and has been in production since 2009.

A number of obstacles stood in the way of its formation and its subsequent delay.

Test cricket has a small yet loyal following – compared with the shorter formats of the game – and the WTC was introduced to help make the red-ball game more sustainable by having something to play for.

“As a traditionalist and someone that still loves Test cricket, I hope it remains at the front of all the boards’ minds and stays alive well for some time to come,” said Australian superstar batter Steven Smith this week.

Previously, the Test mace was awarded to the No 1-ranked Test team – according to ICC rankings. But the winner of the WTC final is now awarded the mace along with a first-place prize of $1.6-million.

The runners-up will go home with $800,000. South Africa already earned $450,000 for finishing third in the WTC standings.

The first ball will be bowled at 11.30am South African time on Wednesday. DM


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