It was, let’s be honest, a wholly deserved victory to top-ranked New Zealand. The spectacle of the inaugural ICC World Test Championship final in Southampton, in which second-ranked India took on Kane Williamson’s No 1 team after a two-year cycle that was nearly derailed by the pandemic, went from being reduced to a rain-marred poor advertisement for Test cricket to a magnificent achievement for a team that collectively refuses to give in.
Two summers on from losing that epic World Cup final to England at Lord’s – which followed the 2015 World Cup final loss to Australia – New Zealand beat India by eight wickets on the reserve day to be crowned the inaugural world Test champions. Few will begrudge them their first ICC trophy since 2000, when under Stephen Fleming the team beat India in Kenya.
The top two teams in Test cricket contested the first WTC final, and the No 1 team won. This is what you want to see in sport: a tournament finale pitting the two best sides together, and the rightful winner emerging. New Zealand out-batted and out-bowled India, and won the title. India were the team to beat, rightfully, after dominating the WTC cycle. This team has shown that it can compete in all conditions, but it has very familiar problems to sort out.
Despite two full days lost to rain and two curtailed days of play, this Test spanned 310.1 overs. During which India made 217 and 170. Batting remains the concern for Virat Kohli’s team, which now have six weeks to train in a bio bubble until the first of five Tests versus hosts England starts on August 4.
The chances of a result in Southampton had apparently receded once the opening day was washed out, and when further showers interrupted play over the weekend, viewers around the world were left cursing the scheduling and location for this inaugural WTC final. When the rain washed out an entire day’s play for the second time, meaning that just 141.1 overs had been bowled in the match after four days, cries of this being an utterly ill-planned event by the ICC grew louder.
But, once the reserve day was activated after another gripping day that was dominated by some excellent seam bowling and Williamson’s vigil of 49 from 177 deliveries to nudge New Zealand just ahead of India’s 217, visions of a result flickered. India ended day five of the WTC final at 64/2, a lead of just 32. The tables had not quite turned irrevocably New Zealand’s way, but you got the sense that if their quarter of pace bowlers could grab quick wickets on the sixth morning, the Test would be open.
And that is precisely what happened. Kyle Jamieson, the 2.03m-tall quick who had grabbed five wickets in India’s first innings, removed the overnight pair of Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara in successive overs. He should have had a third, but Tim Southee dropped Rishabh Pant at second slip on 5. Pant went on to top-score in India’s sorry second innings of 170, scoring 41 from 88 balls.
Jamieson ended with match-winning figures of 7/61 from 46 overs, 22 of which were maidens. He was, not surprisingly, named Player of the Match after Williamson (52*) and Ross Taylor (47*) steered New Zealand to an eight-wicket victory.
We did not get a single day when the allotted quota of overs were bowled. We lost two whole days to rain. “No, for me this is another Test match that has to be played,” he replied. “I think these things are very exciting from the outside, where there is so much importance and so much extra stuff attached to one game. It sort of becomes do or die. But for us as a team, we have been on a quest for excellence for a while now and we will continue to be on that path regardless of what happens in this game. It is no different for us, no more important for us than the first Test we played together as a young group of players. The mindset remains the same.”
Indeed, the mindset was the same. India picked what they believed was the best XI, fitting in their pace trio of Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami and picking both spinners, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Ashwin bowled beautifully all Test, while Jadeja looked off colour on the final day.
Bumrah was decidedly average, barring two spells, and Cheteshwar Pujara’s dropped catch late on the last day off his bowling would not have effected the result. Shami took four wickets in New Zealand’s first innings and was given eight successive overs on day six to try and reprise his trademark second-innings form, but failed to do so. Ishant started the Test poorly, soared back with three wickets and then hobbled off without finishing his seventh over on the last day. India’s bowlers failed to do what is needed to win Test matches: take 20 wickets.
There has and will continue to be talk of New Zealand’s advantage in playing two Tests in England before the WTC final and how India were only given one intra-squad practice game. Such talk should not be entertained. This is the COVID-19 era, where scheduling a series has become extremely difficult and where greedy cricket boards have called the shots. Indeed, teams need time to acclimatise. But there is little the BCCI and ICC could have done during the pandemic, and let’s not forget that Kohli and Ravi Shastri have been very open about how they view tour matches. Just think of the 2018 tour of England.
The fact is that India’s batsmen struggled in conditions where they have traditionally struggled. Rohit Sharma, who has not played a Test in England since 2014 and was opening for the first time there, got into the thirties twice but could not progress. Shubman Gill’s problems against the full-pitched, incoming deliveries continued. Kohli looked serene for his first-innings 44 but was extracted by his nemesis, Jamieson, both times. Pujara’s search for quality runs continued. Ajinkya Rahane made 49 and 15, both times out down the leg side. Pant played as Pant does, and we cannot be harsh on him given how brilliantly he’s been in Tests.
The same mistakes were made by India’s batsmen, and the struggles of the bowlers to dismiss opposition teams’ tail orders was evident once more. Is it a case of fresh legs and fresh ideas needed? Not yet, but this team collectively needs to figure out what is needed to beat England in the five Tests that remain. India’s previous three Test tours to England all ended in massive scoreline defeats, and no matter what Kohli says with a scowl at press conferences going forward, the fact remains that the kind of cricket played at Southampton is not going to win them much.
A parting word for the ICC, which is often maligned. A lot goes into planning a single Test match, let alone a full series, in the best of times. During the COVID19 era, coordinating and finalising logistics is a major hassle. Given the constraints of a rejigged cricket calendar on account of the pandemic, the ICC has done a good job with this final at Southampton.