Win toss, bat first? Not necessarily, say Australia

Test mace in the bag, Ashes up next (1:40)

Brad Haddin praises the job Andrew McDonald has done since taking over as Australia's head coach (1:40)

It did not look good for Rohit Sharma when Australia finished the opening day of the World Test Championship final on 327 for 3 having been put in to bat. But he had been badly let down by his bowlers, as Pat Cummins confirmed he would have done the same and bowled first.

In fact, Australia head coach Andrew McDonald called The Oval surface "a clear bowl-first wicket" given the covering of grass and cloudy skies, although that had burned off by early after when Travis Head and Steven Smith took charge.

There is a quote attributed to WG Grace about bowling first: "When you win the toss, bat. If you are in doubt, think about it, then bat. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague, then bat."

Clearly the game has moved on since Grace's time, but by and large Test cricket has remained led by the bat-first mantra unless conditions are hugely persuasive the other way. One notable exception came at The Oval in 1998 when Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga, knowing that Muthiah Muralidaran was his trump card and not wanting the prospect of the follow-on which wouldn't have allowed Muralidaran a break, stuck England in. They made 445. Sri Lanka made 591 and Muralidaran bowled them to victory.

On the flip side, a year earlier in 1997, Mark Taylor made what is regarded as one of his best calls at a toss when he batted first on a damp Old Trafford pitch knowing it would help Shane Warne later on. Steve Waugh made twin hundreds. Warne bowled Australia to victory.

Waugh's great side of the 1999-2001 era went through a period of bowling first reasonably regularly including four times in 2001 which all brought victories. Of course the game is littered with times it hasn't worked. One of Australia's most famous occasions when it went wrong was 2005 at Edgbaston, the venue for the first Test on Friday, when Ricky Ponting said "we'll bowl" after Glenn McGrath rolled his ankle. England rollicked to 407 in 79 overs (there's a word for that) and it changed the Ashes.

To bring things back to the current time there is a chance we could be in for a bowl-first Ashes this year. Ben Stokes loves a run chase, already stating when the coin goes up that's the way he wants to shape the game. Meanwhile, Australia have shown an inclination to bowl in recent times, doing it on three occasions in the last WTC cycle including in consecutive Tests last season against South Africa in Brisbane and Melbourne. Had the coin fallen Cummins' way at The Oval, it would have been four.

"We've been more prepared to bowl in recent times and don't think that is going to change," McDonald said.

Whereas Stokes might fancy a chase, McDonald said the key factor is wicket-taking. "Think you consider how difficult 10 wickets will be in the fourth innings verses what happens up front."

Cummins, a rare fast-bowling captain, believes the view around putting the opposition in has changed. "If there's a bit in it on day one and you feel like you're going to take 10 wickets, you just go for it," he said. "I think the stigma around bowling first and not bowling them out [cheaply] has gone a bit as opposed to in the past."

However, something always in Australia's mind, and an area they are clearly better stocked than England for the Ashes, is the strength of their spinner.

"Is the wicket going to deteriorate, will reverse swing come into it, will spin come into? That's the other thing to recognise," McDonald said. "We've got an all-time great spinner in Nathan Lyon and the fourth innings is when he gets the work and conditions are in his favour."

Regardless, though, of what stage the Australians are bowling, they are prepared for England's batters to come after them and that may require a shift in attitude.

Against India, Australia conceded 3.97 runs per over across the game, equalling the rate Sri Lanka scored against them at Galle in the first Test last year as the most expensive they have been since 2016. It was a likely a taste of what is to come, although England will try to add a run-an-over to that.

"We felt that both batting groups did an incredible job to prosper on the wicket that had enough in it for the bowling units," McDonald said. "But every time you missed it was a boundary so one thing that we've got to factor into England is how we deny them those boundaries. There's a couple of things that we can potentially tidy up and take from this game into the next one.

"Most of our bowlers went at above what they'd usually go, and we've just got to get our heads around that the tempo will be slightly different. We're a team that usually goes at that high two runs per over, here we've got to get our heads around the fact that we could go at four runs an over."

Another element that Australia have been putting a lot of work into is their field placements and it may be those, rather than specific bowling plans, where the most obvious changes are noticed in the Ashes.

"Their batters hit balls in different areas so our planning and prep will take that into consideration," McDonald said. "You saw even today [Sunday against India], some people may have been critiquing our sweepers out, [but] we wanted to control the tempo of the game. Think in England that's something most teams do. Think England will employ similar tactics when wickets are flat, and we'll do the same."