An Oval toss-up? Sometimes it pays to look up, as well as down

A cursory glance through the record books might have swayed India captain Rohit Sharma's decision to bowl first at the London venue, where history suggests batting first is the surest path to victory

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The beloved coin-toss cliché for captains playing cricket in England is to 'look up, not down', which roughly translated means don't be seduced into thinking grey skies and heavy humidity will deliver bowling benefits when the pre-eminent factor is always pitch conditions.

To that well-tried truism there might be added a more contemporary appendix that reads something like "and don't forget to look up a few bits of relevant history".

That's not to say historical precedent might have changed India captain Rohit Sharma's decision to give Australia's batters first use of the well-grassed Oval strip on day one of the World Test Championship Final.

And from what his rival skipper Pat Cummins indicated at said ceremony, he would have made the same call if afforded the option. Although Cummins' Australia captaincy predecessor Ricky Ponting told ICC Media he spoke to the incumbent shortly before the toss and signalled his preference would be bat first.

But with the sort of retrospective wisdom that accompanies a day one stumps score of 3-327, it's not unreasonable to ponder whether Rohit might have misread the conditions because he hadn't closely studied recent history.

As the India captain pointed out in his morning media conference on match eve, the fact The Oval was staging a Test match in June for the first time was hardly the element of uniqueness many made out.

After all, Surrey have played first-class games on their home ground from as early as April in most recent seasons so there's a trove of statistical data that could be mined if that's the sort of guff you reckon might grant you an edge, or even help you find the edge of Steve Smith's bat.

Of greater relevance would likely be 104 Test matches played over the preceding 142 years where trends such as outcomes achieved in variable circumstances – eg when a captain chooses to send in his opposition – have been established in both qualitative and quantitative terms.

And that material would have suggested the following.

For a majority of its history hosting Test cricket, The Oval has been a venue where winning the toss and batting has proved the most reliable route to victory.

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Indeed, there have been just four instances whereby teams choosing to bowl first have emerged victorious – in 1967 (England over Pakistan), 1998 (Sri Lanka defeated England), 2014 (England trumped India) and last year when England rolled South Africa.

By contrast, there have been six Tests in which the captain who chose to insert has ended up leading the losing side, and perhaps pertinently all of them have come in the past 25 years.

It would suggest that sending in is something of a modern phenomenon, which would make closer scrutiny of recent Tests a pertinent harbinger.

In fact, Rohit's decision yesterday means it's now four Tests in a row at The Oval in which successful skippers at the coin toss have unleashed their bowlers, and in only one of those games to date – last year's England-South Africa fixture – has the approach yielded a win.

Even that game could conceivably carry an asterisk, given no play was possible on either of the first two scheduled days – one lost to rain through the morning and beyond, the other through mourning the loss of Britain's reigning monarch – which pushed England's new fast-forward mode of Test cricket even faster.

That sequence of four began on Australia's previous England campaign when then-captain Tim Paine performed a famous volte-face as the coin landed in his favour, decided to bowl first and saw his team forego a chance of their first Ashes series away win in 18 years by suffering a 135-run loss.

Seemingly that was not sufficient to dissuade Cummins from following a similar strategy four years hence had the opportunity presented, although thinking might change when Australia return to the Oval in late July for this year's final Ashes encounter.

Prior to that, the 'bowl-first' blueprint was deployed by England's Alastair Cook looking to enhance a 3-1 Ashes-winning lead in 2015 only for Australia to pile on 481 and pocket a consolation victory by an innings.

As events stand, Australia's current total in the WTC Final is the biggest produced by a team on day one at The Oval after being sent in, eclipsing the eerily similar 3-287 they managed in 2015 that was underpinned by Smith's watchful 78no that he eventually expanded into 143.

Smith will be there again when play resumes tomorrow, although his current 95no stands in the shade of Travis Head's unconquered 146, which suggests Australia's 2015 first-innings total – still the benchmark for teams sent in at The Oval – may be under threat.

"I thought we could have been more disciplined," India's bowling coach Paras Mhambrey offered by way of explanation when he fronted the close-of-day media conference.

"I thought we started off very well, the first 12 overs, first 15 overs, I think we really bowled in the right areas.

"But maybe after a little bit, I thought we weren't disciplined about our bowling and that's one of the reasons we conceded more runs than we ideally would have preferred.

"The second new ball that we took (shortly before stumps), we saw that the ball was getting a little seam, it was getting cut, so definitely tomorrow morning will be an important session for us.

"If we take a few wickets quickly, then we have an opportunity to come back in the game."

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That was how day one began, with India removing Australia's in-form opener Usman Khwaja inside the first 15 minutes, his first-wicket partner David Warner shortly before lunch and number three Marnus Labuschagne very soon after.

Head then went to the wicket with the score 3-76 in the knowledge batting was going to be challenging, and admitted at day's end his record-breaking, unbeaten 251-run stand with Smith – Australia's best for the fourth wicket at The Oval – probably didn't reflect quite how tough it was.

"We saw with the second new ball this evening it was still challenging, but that good length at the top of the stumps was hard work," Head revealed, and in doing so politely pointed out to India's bowlers where they might better have focused their attack.

"Then, as we saw when they went to that short-pitched plan (after tea), it wasn't the most consistent wicket … with the Dukes (brand ball) swinging a bit, it makes for some awkward moments.

"Hopefully as the game goes on, it gets a little bit quicker for us and we can find the right lengths, and the right areas to bowl.

"I feel like if we do that consistently for a long period of time, it can be a challenging wicket."

The takeaway from the only player thus far to post a century in a World Test Championship final is that India's four-pronged seam attack supplemented by 14 overs from spin-bowling allrounder Ravindra Jadeja (0-48) wasn't able to hit those problematic lengths with any consistency.

Unless India are able to inflict some damage with the second new ball (now five overs old) tomorrow morning, Australia will be on track to become the first team since their predecessors eight years ago to post a first innings score at The Oval of 450 or more.

And across those previous 104 Tests played over 142 years at the south London venue, only one team has scored in excess of 450 in their first innings and gone on to lose the match regardless of what happened at the coin toss – South Africa in 2003, after scoring 484 in their first turn at bat.

Perhaps India are eyeing the template laid down by Sri Lanka in 1998, when they conceded England a 445-run head start upon sending them in, then replied with 591 when their explosive opener (Sanath Jayasuriya) and middle-order master (Aravinda de Silva) blasted big hundreds.

Then the world's top-ranked off-spinner (Muthiah Muralidaran) weaved his magic on a day-five pitch, snaring a memorable 9-65 as England crumbled for 181, leaving a nominal chase which Sri Lanka achieved none-down.

India can certainly claim explosive openers in Rohit and Shubman Gill, and middle-order masters the calibre of Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane.

But while their squad also contains the world's number-one ranked Test bowler, who also just happens to be an off-spinner – Ravichandran Ashwin – he was not considered worthy of a place in the starting XI.

Which may prove costly in any attempt to repeat that bit of history.

World Test Championship Final

June 7-11: Australia v India, The Oval

Australia squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey (wk), Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Josh Inglis (wk), Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Todd Murphy, Michael Neser, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc, David Warner

India squad: Rohit Sharma (c), Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Ishan Kishan (wk), KS Bharat (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel, Shardul Thakur, Mohammad Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Umesh Yadav, Jaydev Unadkat

Find out everything you need to know for the World Test Championship Final here