Did India fall into the trap of picking an attack that works only for the first innings at the WTC final? Ricky Ponting, the former Australia captain, certainly thinks so.
Ponting said on television commentary that the dryness underneath the surface, which had more than just a sprinkling of live grass, would have brought him into the game, especially with Australia having four left-hand batters in the top seven – Usman Khawaja, David Warner, Travis Head and Alex Carey.
“Australia have many left-handers; Ashwin would trouble the left-handers more than Jadeja. I saw the grass, yes there was grass but the deeper I looked, it seemed dry to me,” Ponting said on Star Sports.
Former India captain Sachin Tendulkar, meanwhile, felt highly-skilled bowlers like Ashwin had the potential to take pitches out of the equation, so it was worth India taking a punt on him.
Should India have picked Ashwin for the WTC final?
“It need not be always a turning track as sometimes the spinners rely a lot on the bounce, sometimes that little bit of zip that they get off the pitch, also on the overhead conditions and it depends a lot on the shiny side of the ball,” he said in the build-up to the toss, on his website 100MB. “If they are able to get that drift, they can make the ball talk in the air without the pitch coming into play. So, The Oval is going to be good venue for India.”
Former India batter Sanjay Manjrekar echoed Ponting’s views on the surface, expressing surprise at Ashwin’s omission. Speaking on ESPNcricinfo’s analysis show Match Day, he cited Ashwin’s success against Australia, both in Australia (2020-21) and India (2022-23) and his overall record overseas since 2018.
“It seems like they’re convinced this pitch is very seam-friendly, because Ashwin of late in overseas matches has been pretty good,” Manjrekar said. “There’s clearly a green look to it [pitch] but the soil underneath looked white to suggest there’s some dryness as well, and The Oval historically has never been a seaming pitch.”
Manjrekar also felt Jasprit Bumrah’s non-availability may have influenced the team management, pushing them towards four seamers and one spinner instead of a 3-2 attack. With Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami picking themselves and India seemingly intent on playing Shardul Thakur for the all-round depth he lends alongside Ravindra Jadeja, it was between Umesh Yadav and Ashwin for the final spot and India went with the former.
In Thakur’s favour, his previous performance at The Oval was match turning: twin half-centuries to go with three wickets to help India to a 157-run win and go 2-1 up against England in September 2021.Former Australia wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, Manjrekar’s co-panelist on Match Day, also felt the absence of a fierce competitor like Ashwin in a contest as big as this may put “massive pressure” on India’s four-pronged pace attack.
“It [Ashwin] would’ve been the first name I would’ve looked at [on the team sheet] if I was one of the [opposition’s] left-handers,” he said. “You want a player, especially in a big event like this, who walks towards the fire. And Ashwin’s definitely one of those guys against Australia.
“He loves playing against them, gets into the contest. I know he gets under the skin of the Australian batsmen. One of the big successes India have had over Australia has been due to Ashwin’s presence. They’ll miss him out there and the pressure is on four quicks to put pressure on that middle order.”
Did the experience of the previous WTC final play a part in India’s decision?
Ashwin was part of India’s XI when they played the WTC final in 2021 against New Zealand in Southampton. Back then, India fielded three seamers and two spinners, while New Zealand played four specialist seamers and had a fifth option in allrounder Colin de Grandhomme.
It’s a decision India rued later, as they lost in conditions where there was plenty for the fast bowlers all through – and rain around. Ashwin didn’t feature in any of the four subsequent Tests India played later in that summer against England.
Were India scarred by that decision from 2021?
“Maybe,” Manjrekar said. “But conditions were different. It was a venue where seam bowlers had to bowl. New Zealand had five seam options. I believe you have to look at the history of a certain venue and a pitch rather than how a pitch looks on day one.
“Ashwin, for many reasons, would’ve been a good selection [here], plus he adds a bit of batting depth as well. The Ashwin we saw against New Zealand in that WTC final and the Ashwin of today, there’s a marked change in the way he bowls. This Ashwin you’d think would’ve done well in these conditions. Having said that, Jadeja against the left-handers isn’t too bad, maybe that is the reason why they felt we can still it do with one spinner.”