After winning the toss and choosing to bowl first, India could not find much success on the opening day of the World Test Championship Final 2023 at The Oval. Australia finished the day on a commanding 327 for 3, with Travis Head and Steven Smith leading the charge.
Australia’s Strong Start
Australia 327 for 3 (Head 146*, Smith 95*) vs India
Travis Head and Steven Smith feasted on India’s wayward attack in what were not easy batting conditions, putting Australia in a strong position at the end of day one. Head scored his first century outside Australia, and Smith was five short of his 31st overall as they took Australia from 76 for 3 to 327 for 3 at stumps. Head turned his century – the first in a WTC final – into a big one: an unbeaten 146 off 156 with 22 fours and a six.
India’s Selection Dilemma
The big talking point for India remained the selection of a fourth fast bowler over R Ashwin, a strategy that worked for them against England in 2021. They perhaps were influenced by the 6mm of grass cover on the pitch and the overcast skies in the morning, but they didn’t find close to the kind of control you expect from the third and fourth quicks of a four-man pace attack. Between them, Umesh Yadav and Shardul Thakur bowled 32 overs for 129 runs and one wicket.
Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj were good as usual with the new ball after India put Australia in. The 12 overs in the first hour conceded just 29 runs, produced the wicket of Usman Khawaja for a duck, and the 21 false responses created suggested there could have been one or two more around the corner.
Struggling Change-up Bowlers
However, the change-up bowlers, Umesh and Thakur, provided relatively easy runs at various points after that opening spell of play. Umesh provided David Warner a half-volley second ball into the attack, and was then hit for four boundaries square or behind square on the off side in his second over.
Warner would have thought that was the reward he deserved after roughing it out in the first hour, but India enjoyed some good fortune as Thakur had him caught down the leg side off a short ball just before lunch.
India went to Siraj and Shami, the likeliest bowlers to produce a wicket, post lunch. Shami’s first ball was a peach, seaming in to uproot Marnus Labuschagne’s off stump. India still had a chance there if they could get it right for long enough periods.
Travis Head Takes Charge
Head, who lost his No. 5 position in a horses-four-courses policy in India, had other ideas. Shami had a left-hand batter in sight, he was fresh into a new spell, the ball was still seaming, he beat Head early on, but Head soon imposed his intent on India.
Attacking Through the Off Side
The fifth ball that Head faced was only slightly wide and slightly short, and he crashed it away for four. His attacking game through the off side soon had India fumbling for ideas. They moved a slip out to put a sweeper back on the off side, but then Head was quick to cash in on anything too straight. Siraj conceded two such boundaries.
Smith’s Struggles and Adaptation
In a small byplay at the other end, Smith found it difficult to adjust to the uneven bounce and the sideways movement. His response was different to Head’s. He continued to fight it out whereas Head didn’t mind attacking. On the surface, Head looked better but he offered false responses more often than Smith: Smith’s control percentage was 90 to Head’s 69. Those, again, are their roles. Smith builds, Head counterattacks.
Thakur’s Ambition Backfires
Things became easier for Smith when Thakur went searching once too often. Thakur is an ambitious bowler who bowls full and straight more often than the others. It probably works when you are bowling off the pressure created by three world-class quicks. Playing as the third seamer practically, he probably went full once too often. Smith cashed in, and a 16-run over resulted.
Turning to Jadeja
With the ball still doing a bit for the quicks, it said a lot about India’s options that they went to Ravindra Jadeja before Umesh in the middle session. For a while, Thakur went to the leg attack that worked for India in Australia, but Smith was well-set and was willing to ride the period out.
Australia went into tea at 170 for 3 with Head on 60 off 75 and Smith 33 off 102. India began the final session with Umesh and Jadeja, the least likely bowlers to take a wicket at that point. That told you all about the state India found themselves in.
Head’s Rampage Continues
Soon Shami came back, and India began to test Head with the short stuff, probably too late in the piece. Head took it on, going hard at it. He bottom-edged two hooks from well outside off, but then began ramping the ball. He was by no means at home against the short ball, but the runs kept flowing. Umesh began to leak to Smith from the other end.
India’s Long Final Session
Woefully behind the over rate, the two-and-a-half-hour final session began to look even longer for India. Head took 32 off the first 18 balls he faced in the session. Siraj and Shami then placed a fine deep third to block the ramp, had men catching on the hook, and kept bending their backs. Shami bowled a seven-over spell, Siraj kept drawing uneven bounce, Head went through the 90s looking uncertain but riding his luck. He was hit on the head twice, but kept hooking.
Head’s Century and Beyond
By the time Head brought up his hundred, India was forced to make bowling changes, and batting seemed easier again. India took the new ball 20 minutes to stumps, which brought about more plays and misses from Head but also three more boundaries for him. Smith ended the day with an ominous cover-drive for four off the last ball.
India will need to regroup and find a way to break the partnership between Head and Smith on day two. Their decision to go with four fast bowlers may come back to haunt them as they struggle to find control and wicket-taking opportunities. With Australia in a commanding position, India faces an uphill battle to get back into the game.