(Reuters) - A duel between India's formidable top order and Australia's fiery pace attack could determine who comes out on top when the World Test Championship (WTC) final gets underway at the Oval on Wednesday.
India have dominated, both home and away, the recent duels between the test heavyweights, who claimed the top two spots after a two-year cycle to book their place for the final.
India also reached the final of the inaugural WTC in 2021 when New Zealand bested Virat Kohli's side in a rain-marred contest in Southampton.
Rohit Sharma has since replaced Kohli in the saddle, but injuries to key personnel and the English conditions will ensure the antagonists are on even terms heading into the one-off contest.
India have recalled Ajinkya Rahane to reinforce their batting line-up, which will have to be at its best to negate the Australian attack.
Eyes will be on Shubman Gill, considered the best thing to have happened to Indian cricket since Kohli, following the opener's sublime cross-format display this year.
India will also be relying on Cheteshwar Pujara's obduracy, Kohli's class and Rahane's resilience to counter the likes of Australia captain Pat Cummins and his pace colleague Mitchell Starc.
They will be without stumper-batter Rishabh Pant, who is recovering from a horrific car crash in December, as well as pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah, who remains sidelined following back surgery.
Mohammed Shami will lead India's pace attack instead, but they are yet to make up their mind on whether to harness a second spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin, with all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja.
For Cummins and Co, the WTC final is the first of three major campaigns this year, along with the Ashes series against England that immediately follows and the 50-overs World Cup in India in October-November.
Fast bowler Josh Hazlewood lost his race to be fit for the WTC final, but Australia have a potent replacement in Scott Boland.
All-rounder Cameron Green will be expected to play a key role, but individually no one will have more at stake than opener David Warner.
The 36-year-old is battling to stretch his test career to fulfil his wish of quitting the format after the Sydney test against Pakistan next January.
Opening partner Usman Khawaja has been in rich form, but Australia will be looking to Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, currently the top-ranked test batter, to provide the bedrock of their innings.
The duo will head into the match better prepared for the conditions than most, courtesy of their county stints with Sussex and Glamorgan respectively.
The WTC final will once again be a party without hosts with England failing to make the cut after debacles in Australia and West Indies last year.
Under captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon 'Baz' McCullum, England have since reinvented themselves with an entertaining brand of ultra-attacking game.
Batting great Ricky Ponting wants both India and Australia to replicate England's 'Bazball' approach at the Oval.
"Both captains and both teams in this final deserve to show the world that test match cricket can be played in an aggressive manner and always looking to win the game," the Australian said at a WTC event.
(Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in New Delhi; editing by Nick Mulvenney and Sonali Paul)