"Do it for Rishabh Pant"
A young Indian fan flashed a placard for TV at The Oval on Saturday. If you don't know what he meant, he was asking India to do what Pant did to Australia in Brisbane in 2021 in a fairytale fifth-day finish which would seal a series win for the visitors.
Pant, who is recovering from injuries suffered in a car crash last December, would have fancied another go at the Aussies. So can the collective of Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravindra Jadeja, KS Bharat and Shardul Thakur - the remainder of India's batting strength - work to blunt the Australia bowling attack and conquer their world-record target on the fifty day to win the World Test Championship final?
India fast bowler Mohammed Shami had no doubts India have the batters to win the the WTC final, having lost it first time around in 2021 to New Zealand. "100% everyone believes tomorrow we will win the match," Shami said, without blinking his ever-twinkling eyes. The reason for his optimism: "The way we have performed overseas around the world so we believe we can always come together to win the match."
The India-Australia rivalry is now ranked alongside the Ashes as one of the best contests in modern Test cricket. In the last decade there have been some great Tests played by both teams in Australia and India. Before Gabba 2021, India won in Melbourne to draw level and then escaped with a heart-stopping draw in Sydney. Each of those Tests entered the fifth day.
Kohli missed all three, while Jadeja did not play in Brisbane where Rahane lead India. But it was under Kohli that India dared to topple a massive 364 on the final day at Adelaide in 2014. India lost by 48 runs but Kohli struck one of his finest Test centuries.
On Saturday Kohli combined well with Rahane to stitch together an unbeaten 70-run partnership for the fourth wicket, lifting India from trouble after Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara fell in quick succession.
Kohli has enjoyed batting on the fifth day: since 2014, in nine innings he has made 584 run at an average of 97.33. Kohli has three centuries, too, alongside three fifties, but has never been on the winning side as India have lost three and secured six draws. Rahane's batting numbers on the fifth day, though, are weak: in 13 innings, he has scored 220 runs without a single half-century. However, it is because of Rahane's 89 in the first innings that India are still alive in this Test, so he is bound to remain confident.
Jadeja, too, got off to a good start with the bat on Friday and was two short of a half-century before he was sucked in to make a mistake by Nathan Lyon. Shami said: "280 runs, if you bat well, is not a big score. We should bat normally, focus on playing ball by ball, don't look too far. Your chances of success are more when you set smaller targets."
The Oval pitch, which Shami, like Shardul Thakur on Friday, said was not "well prepared" for an important match, has benefitted the Australia fast men more than India's. Cameron Green, whose two stunning catches at gully have been the turning points in the Test, believed while the ball had become soft, the overnight break will allow the Australians to regroup and come back fresh in the morning.
"[There's] still a lot in the wicket, potentially it might have been the ball getting a bit softer," Green said. "Fortunately we've got a nice rest now, we can come hard tomorrow…then we have a great opportunity when we get the second new ball as well so not too much stress in the changing room."
Green, who is playing his first Test in England, said that one big challenge was the Indian crowd, which could influence the mood and paint a bright picture for India despite Australia having been in ascendancy so far. "With the Indian crowd they get up and about, make you think you are behind the game when you might not be. Crucial as it was today to keep our nerve and kind of know one or two wickets and we are back on top."
After Australia piled up 469 in their first innings not many were optimistic about the Test lasting five days. For most of this match India have been off the pace. But when they arrive on Sunday they will, as Shami said, believe. What else can they do in a must-win Test?
Shami was asked if he would be ready to hit the winning runs. "Haan, zaroor [yes, definitely]," he laughed. Australia will not take Shami's words lightly. They won't be afraid of some hard yakka. In 2021 Australia missed making the WTC final due to a slow over rate penalty. India made the final but faltered at crucial moments against New Zealand in overcast conditions. On Sunday both teams will have a shot at ultimate Test glory. "We've been working so hard for two years to have any doubt of pushing in this game," Green said when asked if was already thinking about the Ashes which starts next Friday.
Fans of the longer format will hope the Test goes down to the wire. At least, Shami does: "The actual joy of a Test match is it should be decided only on the final day. Only that is called a Test match. So the series we have played against Australia in the past 3-4 years, they have been close. Both teams have fought well and won. Hopefully the next day is good [for India]."