Australia's Travis Head celebrates his century
Australia's Travis Head celebrates his century during day 1 of the ICC World Test Championship final against India at The Oval, in London, on June 7, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

London: Australia foiled India plans to milk ideal bowling conditions by batting brilliantly on the first day of the World Test Championship final at the Oval on Wednesday.

Travis Head's fighting 146 and Steve Smith's careful 95 led Australia to 327-3 after they were forced to bat first by India. Australia said it would have bowled first, too, in the gloomy, cool morning.

Head was generally overlooked in the buildup by talk of Smith, David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne. But the breadth of his speedy sixth test century, and first outside Australia, will make him a talking point for the rest of a long tour.

It is a measure of Head's performance that he shaded Smith, one of the world's greatest batsmen. Smith played to expectations, improving his average at the Oval to 121.5.

Australia's Steven Smith plays a shot.
Australia's Steven Smith plays a shot. Image Credit: REUTERS

Together, Head and Smith took Australia past 100, 200 and 300 and saw out three overs of the second new ball.

“We've had a nice day,” Smith said.

Warner and Labuschagne survived a stressful first hour when India would have expected to take two or three wickets instead of just Usman Khawaja's.

After Warner's and Labuschagne's 69-run stand was broken five minutes before lunch, Head and Smith fashioned 94 runs together through the afternoon session and 157 more runs after tea in an unbeaten 251-run stand to put Australia on top in their bid for the only men's global trophy they haven't won.

Australia's Travis Head avoids a bouncer by India's Mohammed Shami.
Australia's Travis Head avoids a bouncer by India's Mohammed Shami. Image Credit: AFP

India's decision to bowl after winning the toss was a no-brainer. The overcast sky and green-tinged pitch caused India to match Australia and choose four fast bowlers at the expense of spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, the world's No. 1-ranked test bowler.

Ashwin is a boogeyman for Australia, and would have particularly menaced the four left-handed batters, including Head. Ashwin's absence became increasingly debatable during the day as a pitch of variable bounce was drenched by sun and Head and Smith tamed India's bowling.

“You have got to do what is best for the team in the given conditions,” India captain Rohit Sharma said at the toss.

In a thrilling first hour, India's prime quicks Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami had Australia gasping for air. Siraj removed Khawaja for a duck, and Warner's edge was beaten frequently, drawing oohs and aahs from the distinctly pro-India crowd.

Labuschagne was battered, his left thumb smashed by a 144-kph lifter from Siraj. Labuschagne took a painkiller on the field.

The end of Siraj's and Shami's opening six-over spells, combined with the sun breaking through, spelled utter relief for Australia.

Warner, looking sharp, gave a battering back to Umesh Yadav, and Labuschagne survived two lbw reviews off Shardul Thakur's bowling.

But just when they appeared set and safe, Warner gloved Thakur down the leg side and was caught by Srikar Bharat after 43 off 60 balls with eight boundaries. Warner walked off with a rueful grin.

That was five minutes before lunch. Five minutes after, Labuschagne was bowled by Shami's first ball for 26.

At 76-3, India was on top but Head and Smith grabbed back the initiative in contrasting styles and silenced the crowd.

Head came out confident, hitting the Indians all around the Oval. Only Jadeja reined him in but Head counter-punched the pace from the other end.

He reached a half-century off 60 balls with his ninth boundary, and earned the first century in a WTC final — 100 off 106 balls — with a top-edged single over square leg.

Head ramp-hit Shami for the day's only six and took a hit on the helmet from Siraj but he was imperious, and heading toward his career-best score of 175.

Smith, watchful and resolute, took 38 more balls than Head needed for his century, just to score his 68th test half-century.

Smith began to be fluent after going 20 overs between boundaries, and even charged Jadeja a couple of times for boundaries. India was frustrated.

Australia 1st Innings

D. Warner c Bharat b Thakur 43
U. Khawaja c Bharat b Siraj 0
M. Labuschagne b Shami 26
S. Smith not out 95
T. Head not out 146
Extras (b1, lb5, nb5, w6) 17
Total (3 wkts, 85 overs, 391 mins) 327

To bat: C Green, A Carey, M Starc, P Cummins, N Lyon, S Boland

Fall of wickets: 1-2 (Khawaja), 2-71 (Warner), 3-76 (Labuschagne)

Bowling: Shami 20-3-77-1 (1w); Siraj 19-4-67-1 (1nb, 1w); Yadav 14-4-54-0; Thakur 18-2-75-1 (4nb); Jadeja 14-0-48-0