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WTC FINAL: TEAM COMBINATIONS THE FOCAL POINT

The WTC final is the culmination of two years of Test cricket in the new-look format, with 24 series played between nine countries.

Fittingly, apart from being ranked No 1 and No 2 in Tests respectively, two contrasting cricketing teams in New Zealand and India will vie for the ICC World Test Championship trophy when they meet in the final at Southampton’s Rose Bowl from June 18.

The WTC final is the culmination of two years of Test cricket in a revamped format, during which 24 Test series were contested between nine nations across the globe. And so, 46 years on from the first ODI World Cup, we have the first final to decide a Test champion.

Too long? Even required? The arguments will carry on, as they should, and no matter what your views on the format of the WTC, this is a final that needs to be contested, especially in this COVID-ravaged year.

Test cricket needs context, and this Test at Southampton provides it. Yes, you can crib about the ICC changing the WTC system, but remember that their decisions were necessitated once the COVID-19 pandemic hit cricket’s international calendar last year. The ICC, seeking to address the Test series that had to be postponed, brought in the percentage of points earned formula by which teams are ranked by their PCT, which is calculated as the percentage of the points won during a Test series out of the overall number of points contested.

Virat Kohli Kane Williamson
Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson are captains of the top two Test teams. (Credit: Getty)

India won 12 Tests during the qualifying period and lost four, while New Zealand won eight and lost four – the same number as Australia, who were left to rue a poor over-rate during the Boxing Day Test against India last December. Tim Paine’s team was deemed as two overs short of their target at the MCG and fetched Australia, as per ICC regulations, a 40% fine and docked them four WTC points, which put New Zealand into the final by the slimmest of margins.

The two most successful teams are in the final, which is what you want in any sporting championship.

Kane Williamson’s team has just beaten England 1-0 in a two-match Test series, their first success in the country since 1999. It has been argued that England were without Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali – all playing T20 cricket last week due to the ECB’s rotation policy – but let’s not forget that New Zealand, losing their captain Williamson to injury after the drawn first Test at Lord’s, made six changes for the Edgbaston match and won by eight wickets. Those changes included the country’s most successful wicketkeeper, BJ Watling, and Tim Southee, with 309 Test wickets.

Neil Wagner Test wickets
New Zealand claimed their first Test series win in England this century. (Credit: Getty)

That New Zealand have been in England longer than India, and played two Test matches, may not matter at the end of the WTC final. This Indian team, adjusting for a couple changes here and there, have won their last two Test tours of Australia. Their players have experience playing in England, even if the likes of Mohammed Siraj and Shubman Gill have done so for India A. Hanuma Vihari, who injured himself during the epic Sydney Test match six months ago, has been in England for six weeks playing county cricket. It is not so much about acclimatising to English conditions during the COVID-restricted summer of 2021 as it is about falling back on the learnings from past trips here, for this Indian cricket team.

Which brings us to the respective XIs. India have named their 15 for the WTC final, and the only real debate seems to be around who the third fast bowler will be, given that the spin pair of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja is almost certain to be reunited. Jasprit Bumrah is an automatic pick, and conventional wisdom says that Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami follow. But could India rest one of Ishant and Shami to accommodate the younger, fitter Siraj who stood up magnificently in the face of adversity during his first Test tour not long ago?

In Australia, as India lost each of their experienced pace bowlers during the Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney Test matches, the uncapped Siraj was by the final match in Brisbane thrust into the role of senior bowler. He bowled superbly in each Test he played, the culmination being a richly deserved five-wicket haul at the Gabba where a depleted but unbroken Indian team became the first to beat Australia there in over three decades. Virat Kohli has been a vocal backer of Siraj – his IPL team-mate, of course – and an off-the-cuff remark to coach Ravi Shastri during India’s pre-departure press conference in Mumbai earlier this month, when both believed the video conference with journalists had not started, suggests that Siraj will play at Southampton.

Mohammed Siraj first Test wicket
Mohammed Siraj stepped up to lead India in his debut Test tour. (Source: Twitter/@cricketcomau)

Seemingly discussing India’s XI for the WTC final, Kohli could be heard telling Shastri: “Apne bhi dalwayenge na … Lala (Shami), Siraj … sab round the wicket daalenge (We will get Shami and Siraj to bowl round the wicket)”.

If this happens, India will sit out Ishant, the third Indian pace bowler with 300 Test wickets and who has transformed himself since 2018 following a county stint with Sussex. Harsh, yes, but it also points to the riches India have in their pace-bowling stocks, further evidence that their bench strength is the best in the business. Unthinkable, really, five years ago.

The Rose Bowl is, arguably, the most ‘Asian’ of international cricket grounds in the United Kingdom (Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens being the other standout). The surface assists spin to a degree, as witnessed by Moeen Ali shellacking India in Test defeats in 2014 and 2018. Batting is also easier there than at Test grounds such as Edgbaston and Headingley, which shows up India’s poor performances at this venue during their past two tours.

New Zealand have dropped Mitchell Santner for the WTC final, with fellow left-armer Ajaz Patel set to play at The Rose Bowl after his impressive display against England at Edgbaston. The return of Williamson and Watling, for his final Test appearance for New Zealand, means that rookie batsman Will Young, who scored 82 at Edgbaston, and Tom Blundell will make way. Colin de Grandhomme is also in the mix after missing out in Birmingham, but New Zealand’s depth in bowling could mean that the allrounder sits out.

With Southee, Trent Boult, Kyle Jamieson and Neil Wagner all available, the Player of the Match from the second Test, Matt Henry, looks like also sitting out. It is plausible that New Zealand opt for a four-man pace attack alongside Patel, which would weaken the lower order batting and see Jamieson bat at No 7. The other, and unlikely, option is that they recall de Grandhomme and drop Patel, leaving only Williamson to bowl some part-time spin.

After leading New Zealand to victory in Birmingham, stand-in captain Tom Latham summed up the team’s approach as about “guys trying to perform their roles as best they can and always putting the team first” and “trying to go out there and play a brand of cricket that we’re proud of as Kiwis”. India, under Kohli’s in-your-face style, have become a force to reckon with overseas. Even with the amount of rain forecast over The Rose Bowl, this is a contest crackling with expectation.

Will India learn from their past defeats at Southampton? Can New Zealand channel their recent success into putting one past India? Will spin have a say at The Rose Bowl? Teasing questions ahead of what, let’s hope, is a fitting culmination to the inaugural WTC cycle.

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