WTC final: Head (146*), Smith (95*) put Australia in control against India

SUMMARY: Australia 327-3 from 85 overs (Travis Head 146*, Steve Smith 95*, David Warner 43; Mohammed Siraj 1-67, Shardul Thakur 1-75, Mohammed Shami 1-77)

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Travis Head stroked a sparkling century to put Australia in a dominant position against India on day one of the World Test Championship final at The Oval.

The left-hander, player of the series in the last Ashes, served a reminder of his talent before this summer’s battle against England with 146 not out from 156 balls.

Head shared an unbroken stand of 251 with Steve Smith, who looked in ominous touch for his unbeaten 95. The fourth-wicket pair took Australia to 327-3 at the close.

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India, beaten in the first Test Championship final two years ago, opted to bowl first on a green pitch under grey sky and reduced Australia to 76-3.

But as batting conditions eased, India’s back-up seamers could not carry the threat of the new-ball bowlers and Rohit Sharma’s side may rue omitting off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin.

India will return on Thursday with a ball that is less than five overs old. They must strike early or risk being batted out of this final.

Australia emerge on compelling day

This was a compelling day of Test cricket, the two premier teams from the past two years duelling in challenging conditions that changed as time wore on.

Even though it was hard to blame India for wanting to bowl first, it may be that it was a good toss to lose for Australia – the pitch offered less movement and more consistent bounce after lunch.

Still, Australia had to work hard to be in a position to cash in, especially in the face of some superb new-ball bowling from Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj – the second-wicket stand of 69 between David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne was incredibly valuable.

Labuschagne was involved in a thrilling duel with Siraj, while later Head jostled with the left-arm spin of Ravindra Jadeja and was tested by a barrage of short bowling in the 90s. These cut-and-thrust tussles ensured entertainment was constant for a noisy but below-capacity crowd that was well behind India.

Australia’s tour begins and ends at The Oval. Though there is a significant prize on offer here, their performance will be framed in the context of the Ashes contest to come.

On the first day of their six Tests between now and the end of July, Australia showed why they will present such a formidable challenge to Ben Stokes’ England.

Head plays Travball

Before England were playing Bazball, Head had Travball – he was leading runscorer during the last Ashes while striking at 86 runs per 100 balls.

Arriving just after lunch with Australia in a tricky position, Head hit back-to-back boundaries from the fifth and sixth balls he faced and score briskly from then on.

Strong through the off side, Head played cuts and drives as well as a ramp off Shami for six, but barely scored a run down the ground. Though he was discomforted by the bumper barrage, Head fully deserved his sixth Test hundred.

Head overtook and outscored Smith, who initially struggled for fluency before ultimately putting England on notice that he is primed for another gluttonous Ashes series.

This was classic Smith, an innings where his batting looked both all at sea and impenetrable at the same time. Edges always fell short of the slips, deliveries wide of off stump were worked into the leg side, anything on the pads was devoured.

The second new ball and a lack of the strike late in the day meant Smith was made to wait for his 31st Test century. An insatiable thirst for runs will have him eyeing something much bigger on Thursday.

Have India made the Ashwin mistake again?

India were in a similar situation last summer, playing a one-off Test to complete a series against England from the previous year. On that occasion they omitted Ashwin, ranked as the world’s number one bowler, and paid the price.

Perhaps they are scarred by the previous Championship final, when they paired Ashwin with Jadeja in Southampton and lost to New Zealand in 2021.

Seam-bowling all-rounder Shardul Thakur was preferred to Ashwin. Though Thakur had Warner caught down the leg side, he and fellow pace bowler Umesh Yadav were not nearly as potent as Shami and Siraj. The injured Jasprit Bumrah was badly missed.

India have not won a global tournament for 10 years and if Australia continue in this vein much into Thursday, victory in this final could be beyond reach.

Though there is a reserve day scheduled, it will not be used if there are five full days of play. If the match is drawn, the title will be shared. Without early wickets on day two, that might be the best India can hope for. (BBC Sport)

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