Big picture - final flourish for Warner, Starc, Ashwin, Kohli, Pujara?
Is it world cricket's most prestigious match? Or is it a final that should be more than a one-off contest but cannot be, thanks to the constraints of a calendar that is squeezing Test cricket to the margins, awkwardly positioned between two events that are, in hugely contrasting ways, more important, and tacked onto the end of an exclusionary league that isn't even a proper league, in which nearly every team plays fewer Test matches than they used to?
The answer, perhaps, is that it is both. For all its flaws, it's the final of the World Test Championship
, and for the 22 players who'll feature in it, could be career-defining, and it could end with joys and regrets that they hold onto for the rest of their lives.
This final feels especially weighty, since it pits the two best teams not just of Test cricket's last two years but arguably of its last decade.
India were Test cricket's dominant side, with all their key players at or approaching their peaks, during the 2019-21 cycle, during which they lost only one series, to New Zealand, before losing the final
to the same team. They've had to chart a more tortuous route to the final this time, and some of the great names in their ranks have lost some of their old invulnerability, but they remain a superb team that will treasure this chance to do to Australia what New Zealand did to them two years ago.
Australia will feel they should have been part of that 2021 final - they missed out because an over-rate penalty consigned them to third place rather than second on the points table. They're here now, though, as league-table toppers, and they start with a clear edge. They are, like India, an all-weather side, but they're especially good in conditions that favour pace over spin. More crucially, they start with fewer key players out injured. Australia will miss Josh Hazlewood
, while India will be without Jasprit Bumrah and Rishabh Pant, two once-in-a-generation players. The fact that India still look formidable is a credit to the depth of talent in their system.
This final may also represent something of a final flourish for the era-defining players that crowd the two sides. Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Steven Smith, Mitchell Starc and David Warner are all 33 or older, as are R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma and Umesh Yadav, with Mohammed Shami less than three months shy of joining them. They've all played upwards of 50 Tests, barring captains Cummins and Rohit who are set to reach that milestone on Wednesday.
Two golden generations, then, are gunning for what could be their last shot at a Test world title. Some dreams are set to come true, and some others to shatter.
Australia DWLLD (last five Tests, most recent first)
In the spotlight - Cummins and Shami
endured a difficult tour of India in February-March, on and off the field. He picked up three wickets in two Tests at an average of 39.55, and left the tour midway
to spend time with his seriously ill mother, who died when the fourth Test
was in play. In his absence, Australia made a stirring fightback from 2-0 down, winning the third Test
and drawing the fourth, and stand-in captain Steven Smith came in for widespread praise for his tactical acumen. While Smith said he no longer held full-time leadership aspirations, and reaffirmed that this was now "Pat's team", Cummins' captaincy might still come under some scrutiny at The Oval, where he'll also want to restate his credentials as the world's best fast bowler, particularly with Hazlewood out injured.
Bumrah might contest Cummins' claim to being the world's best fast bowler, but he'll play no part in this final. Bumrah's absence leaves India without their No. 1 strike weapon and could potentially upset the balance of their attack too - it's harder for them to pick four fast bowlers, even if conditions dictate it, if Bumrah isn't around. It is imperative, then, that Mohammed Shami
brings all his class and experience to play. His record in England
- 38 wickets in 13 Tests at 40.52 - is deceptive, because he's often bowled brilliantly in the country without enjoying a lot of luck, and India will hope he'll figure out a way at The Oval to not just beat the bat frequently but find its edge too.
Team news - Bharat or Kishan?
With Australia confirming that Scott Boland will take the injured Hazlewood's place, their XI almost picks itself. With Peter Handscomb dropping out of the squad after an excellent spell as a horses-for-courses middle-order batter in India, Travis Head will move back to No. 5 and allow David Warner, who missed the last two Tests in India with a fractured elbow, to return as opener alongside Usman Khawaja.
Australia (likely): 1 David Warner, 2 Usman Khawaja, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Pat Cummins (capt), 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Scott Boland.
Ajinkya Rahane is set to return to Test cricket for the first time since January 2022, his experience likely to get him the nod over Suryakumar Yadav with the incumbent No. 5 Sheyas Iyer out with a back injury. KS Bharat's superior glovework won him the nod over Ishan Kishan during the home series against Australia, but in English conditions where keepers spend far less time up to the stumps negotiating sharp turn and inconsistent bounce, India could be tempted to back Kishan's counterattacking skills and left-handedness. The biggest question they face, though, is whether to play four fast bowlers and just one spinner in Ravindra Jadeja, or pair him with R Ashwin.
India (possible): 1 Rohit Sharma (capt), 2 Shubman Gill, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli, 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Ravindra Jadeja, 7 KS Bharat/Ishan Kishan (wk), 8 R Ashwin/Shardul Thakur, 9 Umesh Yadav/Jaydev Unadkat, 10 Mohammed Shami, 11 Mohammed Siraj.
Pitch and weather
Spin often plays a crucial role at The Oval. Since the start of 2012, during which time the ground has hosted 10 Tests, fast bowlers have averaged a collective 30.57 at The Oval and spinners 34.83. Of the English grounds that have hosted at least five Tests in this period, The Oval is where fast bowlers have achieved their worst collective average
, while spinners
have done better only at the Ageas Bowl (31.27) and Headingley (32.43).
These numbers, though, could have something to do with Oval Tests tending to take place in August and September, when the weather is warm and dry and the pitches have undergone wear and tear over the long English summer. The ground has never previously hosted a Test match as early as June.
Oval pitches typically tend to offer plenty of bounce, which could enthuse bowlers, both fast and slow, on either side, as well as allow batters to play their shots if there isn't too much sideways movement.
The forecast promises a clear, bright start to the Test match, with maximum temperatures in the early 20s Celsius. There could be rain on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, though - the scheduled fourth, fifth and reserve days.
Stats and trivia India have won their last four Test series against Australia - two at home and two away - all by 2-1 margins.
Australia (0.411) and India (0.400) have near-identical win-loss ratios at The Oval. Australia have won seven and lost 17 of their 38 Tests here, while India have won two and lost five of their 14. Virat Kohli is 21 short of becoming the fifth India batter to score 2000 Test runs against Australia. Sachin Tendulkar (3630), VVS Laxman (2434), Rahul Dravid (2143) and Cheteshwar Pujara (2033) are the others to have reached the mark. In three Tests at The Oval, Steven Smith has scored 391 runs at an average of 97.75, with two hundreds and an 80 in five innings.
"Think this puts a bit of a bookend on the last few years, then feels like it starts afresh with an Ashes series. Think the first final was a bit of foreign concept and it probably wasn't until we missed out that we thought that would be nice to be part of. So there's been a bit more on it in the last couple of years and pretty pumped to be here."
Pat Cummins says the concept of the WTC, and the desire to be part of a final, has grown on Australia's players over the course of its two cycles.
"No, actually the way he is batting at the moment, I don't think he needs any advice. It's just about his preparation, how he's prepared in the last five or six days since he's come back from the IPL [...] Gill is somebody who likes to bat, likes to spend a lot of time in the middle. I know even though it was the T20 format, you saw he got big hundreds [in the IPL]. He likes to be out there in the middle and face that challenge. That is what he likes and that is what I will also hope [he does in the WTC final]. And team India will also hope that he spends a lot of time in the middle and plays well like he's been doing in the last six or eight months. So to be honest, not really too much to tell him. It's just about giving him that confidence because he's a very confident player."
Rohit Sharma on whether he has any advice for his opening partner Shubman Gill.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo