Australia favourites, but India dare to dream about a miracle win at WTC final

WTC Final: The twin blows of Rohit and Pujara lifted the sagging spirits of the Australians but Kohli and Rahane ensured that the fifth day of the WTC starts with hope.

Jun 11, 2023 - 18:17
Australia favourites, but India dare to dream about a miracle win at WTC final

IND vs AUS WTC final: So ended the most pulsating day of the World Test Championship—with a glee on Virat Kohli’s face after tickling the ball safely to the short fine-leg fielder. A shiver of relief escaped the face of Ajinkya Rahane, who clung on as valiantly as he ever does to raise the hopes of a grandstand climax at the Oval on Sunday. A giant chasm of 280 runs separate India and a historic finish, they are still the odds-on favourites to lose the match, but the Sunday morning would begin with hope and hangover from an intoxicating day of Test cricket.

The mood at stumps captured a distinct shift in momentum. Australia’s cricketers wore an exhausted look; India’s were smiling and applauding the two cricketers walking back after the day’s exploits. On Rahane and Kohli hang India’s far-fetched victory hopes. Both had batted purposefully for their 71-run unbroken alliance. The most striking element of how India batted is how serenely they dealt with the certainty of failure.

In the end, it might take just a good ball, or a stray error in judgment for all hopes to burn away. The peak is still too steep, and India have barely covered one third of its ascent. But what once seemed improbable seems probable. There is the comforting memory of heists in the recent past. Look no further than Gabba 2021. There is one big difference—there is no Rishabh Pant, the miracle worker—but there’s Kohli, in possibly the final stretch of his career, wanting to re-inhabit the rarefied space he once inhabited, and Rahane in his career-stretching pursuit. There’s KS Bharat, whose career is on the line, Ravindra Jadeja, who has never won the true love and appreciation of his countrymen even though he has surpassed Bishan Singh Bedi as India’s most successful left-arm spinner and Shardul Thakur, who would cop endless blows so that he contributes to them.

There is an alignment of men with a point to prove—a perfect Reservoir Dogs script. The thread alone does not make India the favourites to wrap up the title. For Pat Cummins’s men have their own wars to wage and win, their own stakes to be claimed. Losing the WTC final from a position of superiority would be a shuddering body blow before the Ashes. Maybe, this was at the root of their caginess on Saturday. Against the Bazball-drunk English batsmen such dilemmas could turn costly. The Australia of the old that could have ruthlessly crushed half a mutiny. Here, they let India crawl back into the game, with defensive batting in the first session, and arguably a delayed declaration. Cummins and Co might whip up India in the first session. But if they somehow contrive to lose or even draw, knives would be out for them.

Such an end was unanticipated. The narrative was flowing linearly, before twists twisted in, unseen. A slumbering contest thus sprung to life on the fourth day. The first seeds of hope were sown by Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill in their audacious start, a 43-balled 41. Unfazed by the mountainous target—no team has ever chased these many runs to win a Test—they began like two men from whose memory the number 444 was rubbed off. Conditions too aligned, there was hardly any surface-induced movement, Scott Boland and Pat Cummins could not unlock the mischief of the large and hard stitches of the Dukes. In the absence of lateral movement, Sharma could transform into a destroyer exemplar, who could latch onto any minute error in length or line. Cummins had just veered a short ball onto his body, and Sharma just lap-pulled it between the deep fine-leg and square leg. Perhaps, it was a trap, but when in mood, such snares rarely shackles him.

A grin spread on Cummins’s face, but it would soon turn into a grimace as the pair plundered 13 runs in his next over. Sharma on-drove him before Gill back-foot punched him. Both were drool-worthy and composed with an economy of movements. Sharma just pushed the ball off his knees. Gill just flapped his wrists at the last second to ride the bounce and cajole the ball through cover. Both stokes were bereft of flourishes or extravagance for two strokes that command immense technical dexterity and good hands. Sharma then made two steps down the track and flicked Scott Boland through mid-wicket. The idea was to dishevel the lengths of Boland, the most penetrative bowler in the first innings. His sharp in-duckers had tormented all Indian batsmen and by picking him off the stumps, he forced his line further away from the stumps, besides making him revert to hard lengths. In a sense, the slew of new-ball boundaries were a shrewd counterpunching tactic, the only way India would have made something out of the game.

The first sign of panic came when Australia redeployed the third slip to short mid-wicket. A hassled Cummins took himself off for Mitchell Starc, who Sharma greeted with a swivelled pull. The plan to attack seemed concerted, for even after Gill departed, to a rubber-man-like left-handed stunner by Cameron Green, who had wrapped his giant digits under the ball to be deemed legal, runs flowed.

Even the usually boundary-reticent Cheteshwar Pujara did not let boundary balls go unpunished. His approach—he floundered trying to upper-cut—was the final vote of conviction that India were indeed seriously in pursuit of the highest total ever chased in the history of Test cricket.

The twin blows of Pujara and Sharma in the space of two runs lifted the sagging spirits of the Australians. But Kohli and Rahane, blending aggression with calmness, ensured that the fifth day of the WTC starts with hope. No one would have foreseen this at the end of the third day.

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