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Australia Crowned Champions

The World Test Championship final began on 7 June at The Oval between top-ranked Australia and India. India won the toss and chose to bowl, surprising many by leaving out Ravichandran Ashwin. David Warner, who recently announced his imminent retirement from the Test side, came out to bat with Usman Khawaja in front of a big crowd, dominated by India supporters. The wicket showed some early life and Khawaja, who has struggled for runs in England in the past, was out for a duck off the bowling of Mohammed Siraj, caught behind. That brought Marnus Labuschagne to join Warner and the pair took advantage of wayward bowling as the fifty partnership came up in just 68 balls. Australia seemed to be in complete control when a Warner pull shot looped off his gloves and was well taken down the leg side by keeper Srikar Bharat off Shardul Thakur on 43.


At lunch it was 73 for two, but almost immediately after Mohammed Shami beat Labuschagne’s defences to bowl him. That brought Travis Head out to join Steven Smith. Head was immediately on the attack, reaching 27 off his first 16 balls faced, and in the sunshine batting began to look easy as the fifty partnership came up in 79 balls. Head reached his fifty off 60 balls, but he was far from done. By tea the score had gone on to 170 for three.


The hundred partnership came up early in the evening session, off 172 balls, with Smith very much playing the supporting role. India began to look dispirited, unable to staunch the run-flow, as Smith went to fifty off 144 balls, before Head reached his sixth hundred (his first against India and his first outside Australia) off 106 balls. India’s bowlers continued to find the middle of the bat as the 200 partnership came up in 295 balls. At the end of the day, Australia were 327 for three, the partnership had just reached 250 off 370 balls, with Smith closing in on a century and Head nearing 150.


It didn’t take long on the second morning before Smith reached his 31st Test century, off 229 balls. Head made it to 150 off 164 balls, and you began to wonder if the pair would ever be separated. When the wicket came, it was a short-pitched one from Siraj that strangled Head down the legside, caught by Bharat for 163: 361 for four. Cameron Green edged Shami to Shubman Gill, who took a great catch, then Smith dragged one on from Thakur to fall for 121. Next, Mitchell Starc was superbly run out by sub fielder Axar Patel, before Alex Carey and Pat Cummins saw their side through to lunch without any further loss, taking the score to 422 for seven.


In the afternoon, the fifty partnership came up in 65 balls, with Cummins making just 7 of them. Carey was trapped LBW by Jadeja for 48, having hit the spinner for six just the ball before. Siraj then bowled Nathan Lyon and had Cummins caught by Ajinkya Rahane to finish off the innings for 469; it was Rahane’s 100th Test catch. Gill and Rohit Sharma opened up for India, and Sharma pulled the second ball from Starc to the boundary, showing the intent they wanted to play with. But Cummins trapped Sharma plumb in front and Gill then left one from Scott Boland that cut back in, so by tea it was 37 for two.


Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli were the ideal pair for the evening to bring India into contention, but Pujara surprisingly left one from Green that crashed into his stumps despite not doing much. Kohli was then surprised by one from Starc that lifted and could only fend it into the slips to Smith, and India were in deep trouble at 71 for four. Rahane gained a life when Cummins trapped him front, but it was a no-ball. His fifty partnership with Jadeja arrived after 84 balls, but before they could do much more damage Jadeja edged Lyon to Smith on 48. The second day ended with India in trouble on 151 for five.


The third day began with Boland nipping one through Bharat’s defences, and there was a real danger of India being forced to follow on. Had Thakur been caught in the slips on nought, it might have happened, but he and Rahane began the repair work, albeit not without taking some panful hits along the way. Thakur was dropped in the slips again on 8, but Rahane went to fifty off 92 balls with a six, and then the pair reached the fifty partnership off 62 balls. There was a third drop in the slips, this time off Rahane, as Australia displayed unusual sloppiness, helping the Indian pair to a hundred partnership off 124 balls. Cummins had another wicket chalked off when he overstepped, so by lunch at 260 for six India were feeling better.


Yet again, the break proved helpful to Australia as Green took a blinder in the slip cordon off Cummins to remove Rahane for 89. Yadav was bowled by Cummins and soon after Thakur went to fifty off 108 balls, becoming only the third visiting batter to make three successive fifties at The Oval, after Don Bradman and Allan Border. Green induced the edge immediately after and then India were all out for 296 when Shami was caught behind off Starc. Australia led by 173.


India needed to take early wickets to stand any chance of fighting their way back into the match, and they succeeded as Warner edged Siraj behind on 1. Labuschagne was rapped on the gloves first ball, and he would take a few more blows before long. Khawaja flashed at a wide one from Yadav, and he too was caught behind to make it 24 for two just after tea. But Smith and Labuschagne showed why they are among the best in the world now, putting on 62 for the third wicket before Smith charged down the wicket and tried heaving Jadeja out of the ground only to sky one and be caught out for 34. Head was given a life on 12 when his slog sweep was dropped over the boundary by Yadav, but it didn’t matter as he hit one straight back to Jadeja to go for 18 two balls later. There were no more serious alarms before the end of the day, which ended with Australia on 123 for four and well in control.


The fourth day began with Yadav finding Labuschagne’s edge on 41, as the pattern continued of early strikes at the start of most sessions. India had a sniff of keeping their target to a manageable level, but Carey was having none of it even after Jadeja bowled Green on 25. By lunch, Australia had moved to 201 for six and the game felt all but safe for them. After the break, Carey completed his fifty off 82 balls before the 400 lead came up. Starc played some aggressive shots on his way to 41, when he was caught in the slips off Shami. Cummins fancied a swing but was out for 5 off Shami, leaving Carey unbeaten on 66, as he declared on 270 for eight, leaving India to chase 444.


Sharma and Gill made a brisk start to the fourth innings before the latter was out for 18, brilliantly caught low down in the slips by Green off Boland. Pujara came in after the tea break and India continued to bat positively. The fifty partnership came up in 70 balls, cheered by a rapturous crowd. Almost immediately after Lyon came on, he trapped Sharma in front after he missed his sweep shot; then Pujara tried to ramp Cummins, only to edge it to the keeper and in the space of six balls India had lost both set batsmen, leaving it to Kohli and Rahane to fight back. Kohli dominated the partnership which passed fifty in 83 balls, and by the close it was 164 for three, with 280 more to get.


The final day began steadily enough, before Boland struck the vital blow to remove Kohli on 49; two balls later he had Jadeja caught behind. When Rahane was next to go on 46, caught behind off Starc, it was the final blow. Thakur was LBW to Lyon, Yadav was caught behind off Starc, Bharat was caught and bowled by Lyon and the spinner wrapped things up by having Siraj caught to give him figures of four for 41. India were all out for 234 and Australia had won by 209 runs to be crowned champions. For those with an eye on the Ashes, there was hope in the fact that Australia’s top three batters didn’t make many runs, while Boland looks as though he should get the nod ahead of Starc, assuming Josh Hazlewood is fit to play in the first Test. The world champions will not be easy to beat.