With less than a month to go for the second ICC World Test Championship final, doubts continue to linger about team India’s chances at the Oval as also, the form of the skipper, which seems only one of India’s indifferent conundrums presently.

Team India is treading dangerous waters heading into the summit of clashes. This close to the finish of an intense Indian Premier League season, the questions of injury niggles and worries about burnouts are rife in the air.

With the conclusion of the IPL leaving barely enough gap for the rest of the team to assemble in the United Kingdom, with the final set to take place between June 7 and 11 of, there are fears that India might have sabotaged themselves by not placing a better plan for the players on national duty in a deal with the franchisees. The BCCI seems to have less intent to discuss with the franchisees, and the players are diffident, as expressed by Rohit Sharma.

He tried playing cloak and daggers at the end of the Border Gavaskar series with the fact of the matter that the IPL and the Indian summer left virtually no room for rest, recovery or for maintenance of player fitness levels. There was virtually no way for him to ensure team cohesion or of composition of players making the line up in two months’ time.

Claiming the players were in the hands of the IPL franchisees who had been handed a set of guidelines, the Indian captain’s helplessness stemmed from the obvious matters as also, from the reasoning that his captaincy aspirations had hit a wall in terms of challenges and his own form was of concern heading into two World Cup challenges later in the year.

As the IPL gets to the intensity stage with the need to make the playoffs of paramount importance to corporate franchisees as well as the players looking to audition for greater stakes in a drastically changing scenario, it seems that while the ICC World Test championship looms larger in the rear view mirror, there is little India can do about the upcoming challenge which did go amiss once and had become the bane of the former captain, Virat Kohli, as part of his resume of missed opportunities.

It might well come down to a case where while India will want to take comfort in the fact that when the championship final does come around, they will be facing familiar foes in Australia whom they beat 2-1 in the Border Gavaskar series at home recently in March, they are also running the risk where like their counterparts down under, if the results do not go their way, they too could be accused of being complacent and not taking the idea of tour and practice matches in the build up to the all important final seriously enough or of valuing the Test cricket pedestal enough to surpass the agenda of the IPL in the year of the IPL.

This time there is no dodging the issue whether of scuttling the series against a less powerful board or using the influence to rest the frontline cricketers and send a virtual A team or allowing the result to go under the radar. This is diving straight into the deep end.

While it is not the purview of the players alone but also, the board which presently is heavily invested in the IPL, it was for the overall global health of the sport and the integrity of the pinnacle of the sport that is Test cricket itself that perhaps at some point, the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) might want to address this issue.

It has been recently revealed officially that India stands to earn over 230 million dollars in the new cycle of the total global cricket revenue which rounds up to about 40 percent of total revenue earned.

Keeping up the flagship events is important. It is also important that India is to become a regular feature at the final stage in order to maintain a high incoming revenue. And also, if the shares are to be divided amongst the rest reasonably enough so that all the other cricket arms can be eventually self-sustaining.

The ICC World Test championship in June at the Oval will be India’s second attempt at redemption. Having qualified for the final in the inaugural edition two years ago, they were pipped at Lord’s by New Zealand whose persistence paid off after Australia forfeited opportunities to score points when they refused to tour South Africa over covid concerns. Losing to New Zealand would not have been a pretty sight and some might even call it haunting.

With the sword of Damocles hanging over Rohit Sharma to fill the trophy cupboard and knowing his time is limited as white ball captain as is being speculated, the Indian captain has several reasons why he needs nothing short of a win.

Losing to Australia would feel like an ignominy because although the bilateral series seemed to have a clear winner, in reality, it was hard fought. There were plenty of perilous moments that could have gone either way, a reminder that India need to be on their toes if they are not to let this trophy slip through their fingers, not a great scenario in the build up also as they host the ICC Cricket World Cup in October later this year.

The Indian captain himself is on shaky ground. The doctored spins in the media with someone of the stature of Sunil Gavaskar touching upon Rohit Sharma’s form for the Mumbai Indians and claiming he was saving his energy for the ICC World Test championship makes for nice bytes but lacks conviction. Rohit Sharma will need to bring his A game to the picture because there are quite a few moving pieces in the Indian dressing room.

Only two times have India won at the Oval. The first win was in 1971 when Chandrasekhar took home the best figures for an Indian bowler with a six for thirty-eight in England’s second innings. The second win came two years ago in 2021 when the fourth Test of the series saw India concede a near 100 run lead before making up for it with Rohit’s own bat on song, landing England a heavy blow by 157 runs.

Not ideal hunting grounds and not without their lead strike bowler Jasprit Bumrah who has been out of action for a while under controversial injuries.

But the good news for India is that other bowlers who were part of their winning set up including Umesh Yadav, Shardul Thakur and Ravindra Jadeja are in the mix as part of the squad. And while India might look for a third bowler beyond Mohammad Shami and Mohammad Shami, they are unlikely to pick from the reserve players and it might come down to whom the skipper believes in the most.

The wicketkeeping challenge was already a nightmare for India given that Rishabh Pant’s maverick batting which could be the matchwinner on the day was not everyone’s palette within the team management and selection panel. His unfortunate accident in December did open the doors which K.L. Rahul could not grab with both hands when it came to consistency.

It is harsh but not unreasonable that when Rahul picked up an injury in the course of the ongoing IPL, the Indian fans have backed India’s other choices in the form of K.S. Bharat and also, more recently Ishan Kishan, who has been named as Rahul’s replacement.

Although Bharat played in the Border Gavaskar series, it might come down to captain-coach preference in three weeks’ time. With Wriddhiman Saha himself missing a substantial time out of the game over controversial injury assessment in recent years and showing good form in the IPL, some have even made the case of the missed bus, which makes the skipper’s job that much harder to justify the team composition unless the team performs out of their skin as a single unit.

There is some controversy on the batting front as well. Rohit Sharma will keep his place, barring injury and form notwithstanding, which makes him partner with the prolific Shubman Gill who despite his age is already facing his detractors who question his selection.

Virat Kohli picks himself having batted himself back into form as does Cheteshwar Pujara who has once again in subtle fashion kept honing his skills in English county cricket.

The one name raising eyebrows has been another veteran, Ajinjya Rahane. The former Indian vice captain has not played a Test match for India since January 2022 when he last featured in the match against South Africa. Dropped over poor form, his wilderness is set to end if he is picked in the playing eleven.

That his selection coincided with his scintillating form in the IPL made it easy to point fingers in the direction of the Indian selectors for having a myopic criteria for picking players. But Rahane has been busy shoring up runs in domestic cricket with the Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy and also, the Ranji Trophy matches which would explain why he caught the eyes of the selectors again.

But it does bring up the question that while all four of these top veteran cricketers have in the recent past been subject to severe criticism over form and being asked to drop captaincy notwithstanding, the newer talent is being viewed with a certain amount of wariness. There is also something of a safe approach to the selection, given that India have come up on the wrong side of the trophy battle once and do not want to take chances by debuting relative greenhorns

This explains why despite the inclusion of cricketers such as Suryakumar Yadav, he might not get his chance given his solitary outing was not good for him. Whether India rewinding the clock will yield dividends remains to be seen as also, how much Australia have learnt through their tough tour of India and what they expect from different conditions but same opponents when a trophy of World Cup proportions is at stake. After all, Australia have made something of picking up trophies their dominion although not yet in this format.

So while some spots in India’s playing eleven had to be forcibly vacated, others have provided opportunity for some of the more skilled or in-form players to push their names through the door. The greatest challenge for captain Rohit Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid would now be to bring these names together as one cohesive force to challenge Australia in conditions with a traditional reputation for pace and bounce and also, spin in the latter stages of the Test.

While India might not have the most robust playing eleven or even squad, they do have the capability and skill sets to make a strong case for themselves. But given that they have been trumped once before on this stage and with another World Cup and scrutiny not far off for the captain and team, the questions get momentous as also the IPL factor coming into play and the adaptability of the players to cope with the short turnaround between challenges.

After a rigorous IPL summer, the challenge of attrition and temperament of a Test match now carries with it the label of a World championship final. Can the Indians still boast of having fresh legs for it when it comes time to don the white flannels once more?

A lot will depend on strategy and mind games. In the past, there have been several questions about the captaincy ability to think on the feet as well as some of the choice selections that have not always backed the conditions.

Getting the team right on paper will be the first move. But it will also be about quick fingers. Does India have their hand on the buzzer?