The road to the WTC final

Looking at how both teams ended up here.

Here we are at our second World Test Championship final. And because this is not like a regular tournament in any way (These two teams last played in March), it is worth looking at how these two teams made it.

India's road to the WTC Final

England 2-2

This was a little weird as India had two tours here.

They drew the first match but completely ran through England's top order at Lord's with the quick bowling in the last innings. Considering the history of these two teams, watching Indian seamers destroy England's openers was quite the turnaround. Meaning that after two Tests, they were 1-0 up.

But in the next match, Anderson and Robinson ran through them on day one. For the second Test in a row, Root held them up, and now the series was 1-1.

When India fell for 191 in the following Test, it looked like England would take control of the series as they had a 99-run lead. But almost every batter in the Indian lineup chipped in behind Rohit's hundred, and they set England 368. England's openers made 100, but then India worked their way through the rest to take a one-Test lead.

Then they went home. I am sure it made sense at the time, and the world was weird back then. But it would be a terrible decision from a Test cricket perspective.

They returned to play the final match against an entirely different team. India essentially got Bazballed. They made 400 in the first innings, which usually would have been enough to beat England on its own. Then they had a 132-run lead, but they had a soft third innings where most players got set, but no one went on. Bairstow and Root destroyed them to chase 378 in no time.

Now, a lot went on there. But if you came into this series saying India went home 2-2, I think that is a par score for them. But they probably should have won it 3-1.

New Zealand 1-0

The side that had beaten India in the first WTC final was already disbanding, and they turned up with really only one spinner, in fact, Ajaz Patel would end up with all the wickets in an innings to really force that home.

But New Zealand did fight in the first match. India had a 50-run lead, and when Jamieson took a couple of early wickets in the third innings, India batted carefully to make a lead. They scored at 2.88 runs per over, even as Saha put them in front. It meant they only had a day to dismiss the Kiwis. Will Somerville's 100-ball night watch effort took out a good chunk of that day, but quite a few players chipped in before Ravindran and Ajax stole the draw nine wickets down.

The next Test India was back to being themselves, but it's hard to feel they didn't miss out in this series.

South Africa 1-2

Oh, this was the slip-up. South Africa were in the middle of a batting crisis at this point. They had Elgar, Petersen and Bavuma and nothing else. Just a competent India effort should win this series with their bowling talent. And they got the biggest bonus ever, Shardul took 12 wickets at 19, including a seven for.

First Test, the batting showed up. A 117 opening stand with KL Rahul making 123 on this own was enough to beat South Africa who never passed 200 in the match.

The second match was low scoring. South Africa had a small lead going into the change when India made 266 in the third thanks to a bunch of starts from their players. That gave South Africa a fairly tough 240-chase. Dean Elgar sliced, nudged and edged his way to 96* to win the match only three wickets down.

The third Test followed a pretty similar script, except India had the small lead this time. And this time India struggled in the third innings, but Pant made a 100 that double their total and meant South Africa had to chase 212. Which again was tough on a pitch like this, and this time Petersen made the runs, as South Africa chased this one easily as well.

We know South Africa is a good spoiler team. We saw them flirt with taking a Test off Australia and take one off the Bazballing English. But losing two shows that your batting is not functioning well enough.

I had India as 2-1 for this series beforehand. So it wasn't a massive failure, but they could have won this 3-0.

Sri Lanka 2-0

Nothing that surprising happened when Sri Lanka toured India. They never made more than 208 against the Indian bowlers and lost each game by massive amounts. Considering how good Sri Lanka were this cycle, it was disappointing for them, but it was what we expected from India.

Bangladesh 2-0

I had India down as two wins from the start, and India won the first Test very easily despite a decent last innings from Bangladesh. The second Test got a bit tense though. Bangladesh made around 230 in each innings, and India needed 145 to win.

But Mehidy Hasan removed the top order. In the end, it was Axar Patel and R Ashwin and Shreyas Iyer's batting that got them home with a shaky three wickets in hand.

The two zero scorecard made it look better than it was.

Border Gavaskar Trophy 2-1

We will cover this series in the Australian section, but worth thinking about the Indian side briefly. I wrote at the time that making the wickets favour bowlers so heavily means a chance of a fluke win, and in some ways that happened with Australia's third Test.

If India hadn't qualified for the WTC because of the last two Tests it would have been a huge outcry. But they did, and they won the series. But it wasn't quite the way they wanted.

How good are they?

The Sri Lanka and Bangladesh series were the only ones where they met my expectations. But that is partly because I rated them so high coming in. But they weren't as clinical as they could have been against Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand.

Their batting is a concern, for instance, in this cycle, their only batter going at more than 45 is Axar Patel, which is not ideal. Part of that is playing on home wickets that are meant to destroy batters. And looking at their runs, it has worked.

Ishant Sharma was eased out of their bowling, and Mohammad Siraj and Umesh Yadav had been ok. But it's not like before when they had so many seamers starring. Their spinners have obviously done great, so no issue there. But overall this isn't quite the team of before. Their seam unit isn't as inspiring right now, and their batters haven't been making big totals much. And they did let some important moments slip by.

Australia's road to the WTC final

Ashes 2021 4-0

Sadly by Stuart Broad's rule, this series never happened.

Though I did check, and the weird thing is the ICC has not listened to the blonde truth-teller, so Australia's points still count.

We kind of all know the story, England were in the middle of an epic funk, plus they dropped like a million catches to start the series. It is worth noting how brutal Australia were in this series. In the 2019 Ashes or the last Border Gavaskar, they had gotten into good spots and given them up.

This time they pushed harder and harder, there was a lot of "Stop, he's already dead" about it.

Remember there was a feeling coming into the WTC that long series didn't help teams, and they shouldn't. But England were so bad that Australia went from having little chance of making it through to the final to being ahead of the game.

Failing to get Broad or Anderson out at Sydney meant it was 4-0 and not 5-0. That probably only made Glenn McGrath sad. But four wins were still huge.

Pakistan 1-0

The incredible thing about this is that Australia went to Pakistan at all. And this series might have helped them on their way to the final, but obviously, for what it stands for - the first team to stop travelling to Pakistan coming back.

From a cricket perspective, this was when Pakistan went in with the flattest of flat wickets that Ramiz Raja assured us were not that flat. This was an interesting series because Australia planned their way through it, and they knew it would be tough. Pat Cummins talked about it as if the three tests were one match.

Australia didn't have just to beat Pakistan, but perhaps the harder opponent was getting a result on the Pakistani surfaces playing conventional cricket. (In retrospect, England's way probably made more sense.) But Australia did play well, and right at the end of the series finally got their win.

I assumed they'd get one, but getting two draws was a bonus. We now know that Pakistan were a bit of a ramble, but at that time, many of us rated them. But this result looked a little more matter-of-fact when England and New Zealand turned up.

Sri Lanka 1-1

Remember Australia came into this cycle with three series in Asia, and of that, this was the one they probably had the most chance in. Still, Sri Lanka were better than anyone expected, and remember almost snuck into the final.

But Australia smashed them in the first match, winning by 10 wickets. However, they lost the second Test by an innings when Jayasuriya went through their lower order. The other problem here was that they were about to face not one, but two, better left-arm orthodox bowlers in India.

I think I had them listed as one win and one loss when I first did my WTC projections. So this is not a bad result, even if the second Test was not particularly promising.

West Indies 2-0

This was a given. No one assumed the West Indies would win, or even draw a Test without a minor miracle. Australia made over 500 in both first innings, and the West Indies batting held up ok in the first Test, but Australia had worked them out by the last match.

South Africa 2-0

I suppose because they stole a Test in England, and their bowling suits Australia, maybe South Africa could have gotten one from Australia. However, worth remembering that it is almost impossible to win on Australian pitches without fairly sizeable totals. Because Australia aren't going to be rolled really cheap at home that often.

The first Test was probably the one South Africa could have stolen, but Travis Head got the Aussies through there. From there the Aussies declared on two huge totals and South Africa was not in the matches. But rain played a big part in the last match and South Africa held on for a draw. Meaning Australia lost two wins to draws at home in this cycle. But the wins in Pakistan and Sri Lanka overcame this a little.

Border Gavaskar Trophy  2-1

Two Tests in, this looked like it was about to be as ugly as possible. Australia was averaging around 15 runs per wicket. Their batters did not look like they could find an answer for these fast square turners of India. Plus, even though Murphy was incredible, India had three better spinners than him or Lyon. Also, remember they had sent Agar home, and everyone was injured.

It had one of those tours from hell feels coming on when they got a break in the third match, as India had just as much trouble on the tricky surface as the Aussies had. And their chase was small enough that they could get there without too much trouble.

The fourth match was a draw on a wicket that looked completely alien to everything the series had been played on. But that meant they stole a win and took a draw at the end. Again, that is better than I had them down for. I thought a 3-1 win to India was Australia's best chance.

And considering they had been almost ready to go home after two matches, this was a huge comeback.

How good are they?

So you look at all this, and note that they over-performed in several series. Pakistan, India and England. They did what you would expect in the others, that's a top-quality cycle.

They sorted out their opening partnership, unlocked Travis Head, found a functioning allrounder who could be better than that, a secondary spinner who might take over the main role one day, and had backup seamers who looked very good. A lot was going on here that was very good.

They had four batters averaging more than 50, and 50 bowlers who took quite a few wickets at better than 30. And they did all this with Josh Hazlewood playing only four matches. This was a crazy hot WTC cycle for Australia.

Missing players

Coming into this final, India are without Jasprit Bumrah and Rishabh Pant. Now obviously Australia doesn't have Josh Hazlewood now either. However, Australia hadn't had him much, and the way Boland has bowled they have a pretty good facsimile of him.

There is no replacement for Jasprit Bumrah, he is one of one, not just in India, but I have never seen another bowler with his skills before.

And Rishabh Pant is on track to be one of the greatest keeper batters ever. Ishan Kishan averages ten less in first-class cricket, and while he has talent, he's not like-for-like. KS Bharat is more - excuse me while I clear my throat - a safe pair of hands. The Indian players are more irreplaceable here.

And so Australia are favourites, and the bookies are really enjoying their work. However, India are still a good team. But their last couple of years has been messier than the Australians. The Aussies make a lot of runs and don't let others do that. India hasn't been like that. But a lot of that has to do with batting at home.

This is not a home Test, and no one has played in ages, and when they last did, they were on Indian pitches. Heaps of players have come over from the IPL, a few have been hanging around in County Cricket, and some have been not doing much at all.

An Interesting Wrinkle For India At The Oval
It occurred to one of my friends recently that the Oval’s reputation for being relatively spin friendly among English Test grounds may have to do with the fact that Tests played there tend to be played late in the English summer, in August and September. The record suggests that my friend might have a point.

We don't have a good idea of the recent form. We don't have data on how the Oval pitch will play as Tests aren't usually played this time of year there. Neither team has selected the ball. And one side is keeping half an eye on their next series.

The World Test Champion is less of a major final and more like a random pop quiz, making it even more random than most finals. Australia might have been the better team over the entire run, but if Spidercam gets loose and falls on Pat Cummins's arm ten minutes into play, who knows what happens next?

The best thing about the WTC final is that it's like a one-off heavyweight fight. No home conditions, no warm-ups, just two teams parachuting in and trying to win it all for one week only.