Securing the second position in the world rankings over the course of two cycles spanning four years is a commendable achievement. However, India’s record has been tarnished somewhat by their consecutive losses in the finals of the World Test Championship.
One could argue that India potentially stumbled in the final from the very beginning when they won the toss and elected to field, putting Australia to bat first. Perhaps India’s decision was influenced by the fact that Australia possessed superior fast bowlers compared to their own team. Could it have been a defensive strategy, aiming to avoid facing the formidable Australian pace attack right away? Throughout cricket history, it has been a well-known cliche, attributed to players ranging from WG Grace to Bishan Singh Bedi, that when you win the toss, you should opt to bat. If there is any doubt, it is generally advised to take some time to consider before ultimately choosing to bat.
Another widely accepted belief in cricket, observed from the era of Tiger Pataudi in the 1960s to Clive Lloyd in the 1980s, is the mantra of captains: play your best bowlers.
World Test Championship: Australia beat India in final at The Oval
During the era when the West Indies boasted a formidable lineup of fast bowlers, Clive Lloyd strategically fielded all four of them. Similarly, when India’s strength lay in spin bowling, they would deploy their spinners accordingly. While this approach may have seemed imbalanced, there was no practical benefit to including a mere token spinner in Lloyd’s team or a token medium pacer in Pataudi’s team. This unconventional strategy occasionally resulted in surprising decisions, such as a wicketkeeper being assigned the role of opening the bowling, or even star opening batter Sunil Gavaskar taking up the ball.
In a tight situation, the decision at the Oval could have been between Jayadev Unadkat, whose left-arm medium pace would have provided a different dimension to the bowling attack, and the exceptional Ravichandran Ashwin, who has been India’s most successful bowler throughout the two-year cycle. It is disheartening for Ashwin, who has amassed an impressive tally of 474 Test wickets, to potentially feel undervalued and relegated to the role of carrying drinks to the field. Such a circumstance might lead him to question if he is pursuing the wrong profession.
Even if India had been dismissed for a mere 150 runs in the first innings and Ravichandran Ashwin had failed to take any wickets in the fourth innings, it would have indicated that the team management’s decision-making was at least logical and well-founded.
For those who believed that the captain-coach combination of Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid might be too cautious and that a more aggressive duo was needed, the outcome remained unchanged in 2021 with the assertive partnership of Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri. However, in their pursuit to rectify the team selection mistakes made against New Zealand in the past, India ended up repeating similar errors this year. Unfortunately, two wrongs do not make a right.
By getting the basics wrong, India found themselves playing catch-up right from the first day at the Oval. Australia showcased their best skills against the best opponents. Kohli fell victim to a superb delivery from Mitchell Starc in the first innings, which he managed to edge. In the second innings, he was defeated by an excellent delivery from Scott Boland and was caught brilliantly by Steve Smith in the slips.
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India appeared to be missing the fiery intensity required in their performance. On the second morning, as Steve Smith was batting on 95, Mohammed Siraj bowled two half volleys that almost assisted Smith in reaching his century effortlessly.
Numerous excuses may be put forth to explain India’s disappointing performance: the impact of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the use of the Duke’s cricket ball in the match, the earliest Test ever played at the Oval, the unpredictable bounce on the pitch, and the absence of Jasprit Bumrah, Rishabh Pant, and KL Rahul from the team. However, it is worth noting that many of these factors were applicable to Australia as well.
In a familiar pattern that has occurred frequently in recent times, a couple of well-executed deliveries dismiss top batsmen, followed by a few poor strokes leading to further dismissals. Suddenly, everyone finds themselves calculating the number of first-class fifties scored by the No.8 batsman.
Who would have anticipated Cheteshwar Pujara allowing the wrong delivery to pass and being bowled in the first innings, or attempting an uppercut to the wrong ball and getting caught behind in the second innings? It is ironic that Pujara, who hasn’t participated in the Indian Premier League (IPL), experienced such dismissals. Interestingly, India’s standout performer in the contest, Ajinkya Rahane (scoring 89 and 46), doesn’t possess a central contract.
The question remains: why does India consistently falter in the final or penultimate stages of ICC tournaments?
Waiting for ten years to secure a title is a significant duration, with their last victory coming in the Champions Trophy limited-overs tournament in England in 2013. It would be unwise to search for a definitive pattern, as there cannot be one. Whether it’s white ball or red ball, tournaments held at home or abroad, different captains and coaches, or varying times of the season, there are numerous variables at play. Continuously emphasizing this point risks invoking the term “chokers,” which does not accurately describe India’s situation.
India has emerged victorious in England, Australia, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. They are no longer merely dominant at home and vulnerable abroad, as they once were.
Over the past 30 years, they have won a significant number of away Test matches compared to their losses (124-80). The outcomes of the last two World Test Championship finals should not overshadow this overall record.