India will take a decision on R Ashwin’s selection on the morning of the World Test Championship final against Australia once they have assessed conditions as they stand.While some rain is forecast from Saturday (fourth day) during the game, there has also been considerable interest in the nature of The Oval surface for the final, mostly because no Test cricket has ever been played at the ground as early as June. Traditionally, The Oval has been known to aid spin, as well as being conducive to reverse swing but that has been the case for Tests mostly towards the end of the summer. The pitch for the final isn’t exactly a fresh one. It has been used before, but not in a while.
Ashwin’s selection has been a consistent theme through India’s recent Tests in England, or more accurately the fact that he has not been picked. He missed out entirely on the last Test series in England, of which four Tests were played in 2021 and one last summer. In India’s last Test at The Oval, in September 2021, they picked Ravindra Jadeja as the sole spinner, relying on a three-man pace attack and Shardul Thakur as the all-round option.
The last Test Ashwin did play in England was the last WTC final, against New Zealand in Southampton in 2021. Asked on the eve of this final how difficult it is to leave out a player such as Ashwin, the India captain Rohit Sharma made sure to point out that a decision had not yet been made.
“I’m not saying that Ashwin is not going to play,” Rohit said. “We’ll wait until tomorrow because one thing I have seen here, the pitch actually changes quite a bit day to day. Today it’s looking this way, tomorrow it might be slightly different, who knows? So, the message to the boys has been very clear. All 15 must be ready to play at any point in time.”
There has been, as Rohit said, county cricket played at The Oval this year, three rounds of it, with the last game ending on May 20.”We’ve been hearing not much of cricket is played here in June,” Rohit said. “The County season has been played here. We saw there was a game played a couple of weeks back here. It’s not like it’s the first game of the season happening on this ground. We are quite aware of what the conditions are, what is going to happen in the next five days. Weather forecast looks alright.”
Going by the data from those county matches, some behavioural traits are clear, the clearest one that spin has barely had a role to play.
Spinners have only bowled 32 overs in those games (average: 158), compared to 745 from pace bowlers. No spinner on either side has bowled more than seven overs in an innings. Surrey have not deployed a specialist spinner, relying instead on Will Jacks’ part-time offbreaks. That has been a deliberate ploy, the team playing to its strengths of a good crop of fast bowlers. The locals say that is why surfaces have been geared for both good pace and bounce with minimal help for spin as the game progresses.
Bounce is likely at the WTC final too, at least going by the Surrey curator Lee Fortis’ – admittedly light-hearted – exchange on Ashwin’s YouTube channel: “It will be bouncy, that’s one thing, it will be bouncy.”
First-innings scores at The Oval this season have not been big. Surrey have bowled first in every game, twice after winning the toss, bowling sides out for 278, 254 and 209, with some early swing and seam on offer. They have won each of those games, ultimately chasing down targets of 243, 70 and 58 for the total loss of two wickets.
Bowling first may not be a bad option based on those numbers, but no side has crossed 400 in their first innings, the highest score Surrey’s 380 after Middlesex had been bowled out for 209.
Over a bigger sample size of the last five years, across the 16 county matches played in or before June at The Oval, spin has played a bigger role, with around 58 overs per game. And Ashwin did make a fairly strong impression playing here in July 2021, picking up a six-for that helped bowl Somerset out for 69. The ground has been the joint-fastest scoring venue in those five seasons (in or before June), with runs at 3.41 per over.