London: Three months ago, if you were asked to pick a favourite for India vs Australia clash, the answer would have been a resounding 'India'.
However, as the two teams head into their World Cup group stage clash at the Kennington Oval, what would have been considered a lop-sided contest a few months ago has turned into a clash of heavyweights.
It's funny how things drastically change in a short period of time. Australia were struggling big time in the ODI arena with 22 losses from 28 games in the two-year period from 2017 to 2019 (30 Jan to 5 March) but in a dramatic turnaround, they now go into the World Cup clash with India on the back of a 10-match winning streak and are being considered one of the title contenders.
They have built momentum with two wins in two matches and quietly looking dangerous.
India have started on a positive note with a win in their opener against South Africa. They have four tough fixtures straight up and if they manage to get them out of the way with positive results, it virtually eases their path to the semis. That's why India would be looking to build the momentum of their own.
After an easy win against Afghanistan, Australia wobbled early against West Indies and were 38/4 before Steven Smith and Nathan Coulter-Nile came to their rescue with the bat and then Mitchell Starc with the old ball. The shades of the old Australia were visible with their much-vaunted mental strength on display.
The top-order's struggle against the short ball wouldn't have escaped India's eye in this world of television, computers, and analysts. And this is where the new ball could hold the key in the match. Gaining early momentum in the match will be crucial.
The last couple of days in London have experienced rain and overcast conditions with a strong breeze. Even in bright sunshine, the wind speed generally hasn't relented. And it could be a factor early on in the innings. Captains would look to bowl first after winning the toss.
Jasprit Bumrah has been breathing fire and it was his first spell at The Rose Bowl, a spell-binding one, that set the tone against South Africa.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar too has had quite a bit of success against Australia in the last couple of years (Since 1 June 2017). He is the highest wicket-taking pacer against the Aussies in that period.
Although Australia's struggles against pace in the last match might make the Indian think tank ponder over playing Mohammed Shami, who can ramp up good pace and has sharp short deliveries, as a third seamer or maybe in place of Bhuvneshwar, in search for some chin music. In which case they might opt to go with Ravindra Jadeja in place of Kuldeep Yadav to lend stability to the batting.
With Kuldeep having bowled well against South Africa, the question is, would India want to drop him and fiddle with the winning combination?
Australia, on the other hand, would like to target the top order early via Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins and then exploit India's perceived middle-order weakness.
There is another battle within the battle — between Indian spinners and Australian batsmen.
The series that sparked Australia's resurrection in March saw them counter spin well in India. And over the last three months, the batsmen have shown marked improvement against spin, their perennial Achilles heel.
India's spinners averaged 45 in that series where Australia stunned them 3-2 coming back from 2-0 down. In their next ODI series, against Pakistan, the Australian batsmen averaged 77.37 against spin. The Australian middle order has good players of spin.
This is the same pitch where Bangladesh spinners scalped six out of eight wickets before going down fighting to New Zealand. Against a strong batting line-up that bats deep, the Indian spinners' role becomes important especially with ODI cricket slowly experiencing a paradigm shift with middle overs holding the key.
Australia might not want to tamper with their winning combination as well.
India walked away with a lot of positives from the South Africa game and it seems the middle order jigsaw is finally falling into place with KL Rahul and MS Dhoni getting into the groove in No 4 and 5 positions.
Bumrah will again be India's trump card with the kind of rhythm and form he has been, while Adam Zampa will be the key man for Australia. He's had decent success against India with most wickets by a spinner in the last 2 years — 15 at second-best average of 33.73 for spinners to have bowled more than 50 overs.
Two of the three games have witnessed 300-plus totals at The Oval and we can expect another high-scoring contest on Sunday.
Fans warm up to the mega clash
It's a sell out at The Oval and expect the Indian fans to ramp up the atmosphere. On the eve of the match, despite being a sell-out, the ticket windows at The Oval had a constant inquiry for tickets.
49-year-old Vijay Patel, an employee at an airways company had come down all the way from Hillington in search of tickets for himself and his two kids. He spent close to seven hours outside the Stadium and every hour he would enquire for tickets at the window in hope. "I am just crazy about cricket, it's in the blood," Patel tells Firstpost. "I rang up yesterday at the Stadium and I was fortunate enough to be offered restricted view Gold tickets at face value. But I hesitated because I wanted to just check the weather and the location on the stand. Within five minutes, I rang back to buy them, but they were gone! They were history, my hesitation just cost me. So I am back to square one and back to the drawing board in search for those valuable tickets," he said before resuming his search of tickets.
A small gathering of fans waited outside the Oval to get a glimpse of their stars and they were obliged with selfies by Smith and Warner.
However, the real atmosphere started to develop up north as the fans warmed up for the blockbuster in the pre-match party organised by the Bharat Army.
Fans from around the world connected with each other over cricketing talks. Nostalgia was in the air as strangers from different parts discussed the past and present eras over a drink or two. They took part in Indian cricket quiz, and danced to the tunes of the DJ and dhols.
The passion and excitement for the game were palpable. "I wasn't allowed to travel more than two weeks from my work," says Rishee Chhabra who had flown down from Canada to watch all India matches, semis and final. "I wasn't given the time off, so I decided to quit my job and come to London to watch the World Cup. Hopefully, we lift the World Cup on the Lord's balcony on 14 July and I can go back in peace and start finding a job again," Chhabra adds in animation.
The general consensus was that the fans were cautious and not going overboard with their predictions, given Australia's sudden resurgence and big tournament history and stature.
Irrespective of the result, the fans might be in for a cracker at The Oval.
The writer is in London to cover India vs Australia World Cup match on the invitation of Oppo Mobiles