Saturday, June 15, 2024

WTC Final: It was short-sighted to drop Ravi Ashwin

To omit the highest-ranked bowler in Test cricket from the playing XI is a big call. India took this major decision on Wednesday in the World Test Championship (WTC) final against Australia by excluding off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin from the starting XI.

It is not merely his ranking, but the fact that Ashwin is an all-wicket exponent and therefore potent even on pitches favouring faster bowlers.

India selected a side virtually for the first session of the match. The weather forecast was sunshine for the greater part of the game. Indeed, the second hour of the opening morning was sunny; and easier for batting than at the start of the Australian innings.

Once you win the toss with four quick bowlers in your pick, inserting the opposition is a no-brainer. Predictably, that is what Indian captain Rohit Sharma did. The Indians perhaps got carried away by the grass on the pitch and the temporarily overcast sky. Such conditions can be deceptive. While the track undoubtedly looked green, it was dry and there was no residual moisture underneath. This was because London, after a wet spring, hasn’t experienced much rain in the past 2-3 weeks.

In a far more challenging batting environment at Headingley in 2002, India had batted first and posted a 600-plus total, with hundreds from Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly. The tourists had enforced a follow-on and spinners Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh had bowled India to victory.

Sharma’s expressmen overall let him down in the first session. Mohammed Siraj was the pick of the Indian bowlers in the couple of hours of play before lunch. He generated pace, moved the ball both ways and deserved the scalp of opener Usman Khawaja. In fact, he was unlucky not to add to his tally.

Mohammed Shami was accurate and troubled the Australian batsmen; but didn’t make the ball skim off the surface the way he is capable of doing, which is disconcerting for a batsman. Inherent in the wicket was good bounce – proof that it is dry – which somewhat negated lbws.

Umesh Yadav was disappointing. He only really reverse swings the ball after it has lost its shine and can also be erratic in line and length, which he was. David Warner cracked him for four boundaries to the off-side in one over.

Shardul Thakur swung the ball, as he generally does. The atmosphere in England suits him. He was unsurprisingly rewarded with Warner’s wicket, albeit a bit luckily as he snicked down the leg side.

Had India captured four wickets in the first session, that would have justified the gamble to bowl first. Given that the ball is likely to continue to seam off the grassy strip, they could yet compensate for their limited initial success.

Under the sunshine that emerged in the afternoon, Ashwin would probably have been as effective as anybody. Even if the ball didn’t turn, he would have beaten the batsman in the air.

The second and third days could theoretically make life easier for the batsmen. But the dryness suggests slow bowlers will obtain assistance thereafter. Ravindra Jadeja has bowled impressively of late; but operating in tandem with Ashwin in the third innings would likely have given India an edge.

(Senior cricket writer Ashis Ray is a broadcaster and author of the book ‘Cricket World Cup: The Indian Challenge’)

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