Kolkata: Cricket is the only sport which has three formats – Tests, One-day Internationals and T20 Internationals. However, the anomaly was that while both the shorter formats had definitive world championships, the traditional one did not have one all these years.
Well, all that’s going to change at the end of the World Test Championship final between India and New Zealand, scheduled between June 18-22 at the Ageas Bowl in Southampto, which will see the first world champions in Tests. This, in a nutshell, underlines the importance of the contest – though the jury may still be out on the format of the two-year cycle of the championship which began in 2019.
A trenchant critic of the point system was none other than India’s head coach Ravi Shastri himself. Soon after earning a ticket to the final after India swept England 3-1 in the last home series (their 13th home series win on the trot) to be the only team who logged over 500 points, Shastri criticised the International Cricket Council (ICC) for changing the qualification criteria for the final towards closing stages of the cycle, saying the world governing body needs to stop ‘’shifting goalposts’’.
‘’If you ask me about first cycle, please don’t shift the goalposts,’’ Shastri took a direct dig at the ICC when asked about what changes he would like when WTC is held during next cycle of events.
‘’I am sitting at home because of COVID-19 in the month of October with more points than any other team, 360 apparently (having won three series and lost one). A week later without knowing, some rule comes that we are going to go (move) into the percentage system and we go (slip) from number one to three (in points table),’’ the coach said.
The inaugural edition of WTC had 120 points per series, irrespective of the number of matches played by respective teams. Points for each win depended on the number of Tests in the series and quite a few members in the cricket fraternity have criticized the current system for being too rigid.
“The World Test Championship is a really good concept, I just don’t think it’s quite right yet. It’s a first-time effort. I can’t quite work out how a five-match Ashes series can be worth the same as India playing Bangladesh for two Tests,” said Stuart Broad, the senior England paceman, after his country lost out to India in the race for the second finalist’s berth.
However, the ICC and it’s stakeholders deserve a big pat in the back for charting the blueprint of a two-year cycle – right in the middle of a raging pandemic – where the concept of Test matches in the bio bubble were also born. The governing body of the game had been mulling the idea for years but has hit several roadblocks before being put into place.
How did the journey of the two finalists go? It took India more of an effort on the road as they won 12, lost four and drew one Test out of 17 matches in the World Test Championship – which included that fairytale series win Down Under.
New Zealand, on the other hand, advanced to the final on the back of victories at home as they head a headstart with a 2-0 whitewash of India early last year and then pounded the West Indies and Pakistan. Their billet in the culmination clash of the World Test Championship was affirmed once Australia pulled out of the scheduled visit through South Africa recently, referring to COVID-19 concerns.
Has the World Test Championship then come to say? Only time can tell, but for now, it’s the biggest game in a format which calls for the biggest test of character in this sport!
ROAD TO WTC FINAL
West Indies 0 India 2, August 2019
India 3 South Africa 0, October 2019
India 2 Bangladesh 0, November 2019
New Zealand 2 India 0, February 2020
Australia 1 India 2, December-January 2020-21
India 3 England 1, February-March, 2021
Sri Lanka 1 New Zealand 1, August 2019
Australia 3 New Zealand 0, December-January 2019-20
New Zealand 2 India 0, February 2020
New Zealand 2 West Indies 0, December 2020
New Zealand 2 Pakistan 0, December-January 2020-21
New Zealand have the edge against India in the final
Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor
Who will win the inaugural World Test Championship? India or New Zealand? It’s a tricky question. Virat Kohli’s India are undoubtedly the best Test side in the world, having beaten Australia and England. But reputations hardly matter in sport, especially in cricket. And Test cricket is a waiting game, where consistent performances over five days decide the winner.
Kane Williamson’s New Zealand, who crawled past India to be No.1 ranked side after winning the two-Test series against England on Sunday, are no pushovers. For a side that narrowly missed the World Cup title in 2019, they thrive in English conditions. It’s more like back home for the Kiwis. That makes for an even contest in Ageas Bowl, Hampshire, from June 18.
In a clash of equals, small advantages matter. In England, the green pitches, overcast conditions and Duke balls make a huge difference. The balls swing and seam wickedly. Moreover, the conditions can change through the course of the day. So medium-pace bowlers can be fearsome with a bit of help from the wicket.
The English conditions offer New Zealand a slight advantage. In domestic games, the Kiwis play swaddled in multiple sweaters when chilly winds bite into the players’ bodies. It also explains why New Zealand produces more seamers than spinners who find it difficult to grip the ball.
The Kiwi bowlers, led by Trent Boult, must be rubbing their hands in glee. He will be backed up well by Tim Southee, Neil Wagner, Matt Henry and others, who will provide a searching examination of Indian batsmen’s technique and temperament against the moving ball. It certainly will be one of the high points of the game and may well decide the winners.
The Indian attack too is heavy on pace. Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami have pitted their skills against the world’s best batsmen with abundant success. And newcomers Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur have proved to be matchwinners. So India have a seam attack to match the Kiwis.
Besides, the Indian attack has more depth and variety. Off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and left-arm orthodox Ravindra Jadeja are world-class spinners, and Joe Root’s English side were clueless against Axar Patel’s left-arm spin. This makes the Indian bowling more potent.
Since both sides have strong bowling attacks, batsmen’s form will decide the outcome of the Test. Here’s where New Zealand have a decisive advantage. Their batsmen are used to playing the moving ball. So they unlikely to chase too many deliveries outside the off-stump and won’t flick balls that home in on the off and middle stumps.
Acclimatisation the key
That advantage is negated by a lack of quality in the New Zealand batting order. They are heavily reliant on captain Williamson, who often wages a lone battle. Although Ross Taylor, Tom Latham and B.J. Watling have weighed in well on occasions, they haven’t been consistent enough. However, the form of Devon Conway, the double centurion against England in the first Test at Lord’s, is encouraging.
In contrast, the Indian side is led by arguably the best batsmen in the game today. Kohli’s batting stats are mindboggling, and he’s learned to negotiate the moving deliveries if his tall scoring in 2018 is any indication.
A lot depends on the starts provided by Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill or Mayank Agarwal. A good first-wicket stand would ease the pressure on Kohli and his deputy Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteswar Pujara. And India bat deep too.
Acclimatisation is another factor. The Kiwis have been in England for the past several weeks. What’s more, they have played a couple of Test matches and finished on the winning side against the hosts. So, they are battle-ready.
In sharp contrast, the Indians arrived only a couple of weeks early and have been in quarantine. They have played one intra-squad warm-up game before the final. For a bunch of players, who are coming off T20 games in the Indian Premier League, the transition can be tricky.
The argument against it is that these are professional cricketers who can switch between formats with ease. Can they? The performances in the Test will provide us with the answer.
So it’s New Zealand’s familiarity with the conditions against India’s superior talent. Who will win? I think the Kiwis has a 10 per cent advantage. That’s if Williamson plays.
Look out for the marquee match-ups
By Gautam Bhattacharyya, Senior Associate Edior
The biggest match-up in the WTC final – no prizes for guessing – is that of between rival captains Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson. Two of the finest batsmen of the modern era, their rivalry goes back to the Under-19 days when Kohli’s India had the last laugh against the Kiwis in the World Cup semi-finals.
They are two of the finest captains but with contrasting styles. While Kohli’s aggressive, in-your-face style has often strong criticism, Williamson is cool and astute.
However, a world title cannot be won by the captains alone. We take a look at four other match-ups which may shape the course of the final:
Kane Williamson vs Jasprit Bumrah
Jasprit Bumrah’s match-ups against Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor will be vital to India’s odds. Bumrah’s capacity to wipe off the tail will prove to be useful against any semblance of Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson too.
Williamson is presently the top-ranked batsman in the ICC men’s Test Rankings while Bumrah is the highest-ranked Indian pacer. Bumrah has been in and out of the Test side of late for different reasons. In the wake of missing the Test series against England on home soil, Bumrah would plan to make a solid rebound in whites as India gear up to confront New Zealand.
Ravichandran Ashwin vs Tom Latham
Veteran off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin is, as of now, the second-ranked bowler in ICC Test rankings and has been on a high in the last two Test series against Australia and England, respectively. His current form speaks for itself with the fact that he is the third-highest wicket-taker in the WTC cycle with 67 wickets, while the off spinner boasts of six five-wicket hauls in his career against the Kiwis.
New Zealand’s vice-captain Tom Latham, who forms the spine of their batting along with the likes of Williamson, Taylor and the new sensation Devon Conway, has been a joy to watch in recent years. He is right now the 12th ranked player in the ICC Test rankings for batsmen and it will be fascinating to watch how Latham handles Ashwin on the Ageas Bowl turf.
Rohit Sharma versus Trent Boult
Only weeks in the wake of sharing the dressing room at Mumbai Indians, Rohit Sharma and Trent Boult will be clashing in the winner-takes-all game. ‘Hitman,’ as he is famous as, had been in the form of his life that last time India were in England for the ICC World Cup where he slammed five centuries, but the upcoming six Tests – including the WTC final – will be a different kettle of fish. Rohit has been as disciplined as he can be in the last Test series at home against England, but he is yet to demonstrate his value in overseas conditions as an opener.
Boult, on the other hand, will be rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of getting the Duke ball to swing and getting wickets forthright. His numbers in England – 21 wickets including two fifers at 23.14 (prior to the two-Test series against England) are his second-best for all countries he has at any point played in. In the event that the Ageas Bowl pitch throws up a greenish tinge on match day, then Boult could be the biggest roadblock in India’s World Test Championship dream.
Virat Kohli versus Tim Southee
Tim Southee, the senior pro of Kiwi bowling line-up, has been the main adversary of Virat Kohli. Apart from being the main wicket-taker for the Blackcaps in the WTC cycle with 51 scalps and five fifers, he dismissed the Indian captain twice during their 2-0 home success over Team India a year ago.
Kohli averages a healthy 42.75 in Tests and will unquestionably be hoping to play a big innings in this do-or-die clash. He has not scored a century in any format for over a year and-a-half, but has been chipping in with workmanlike half-centuries everywhere. Incidentally, the master batsman does hold a good record at the ‘Bowl’ – hence a contest with Southee should be be an enthralling one.
Ageas Bowl: A much sought-after venue in new normal
By Gautam Bhattacharyya, Senior Associate Editor
It may have been more than a decade that the Ageas Bowl became the 10th Test venue in England in 2010, but it’s importance as a venue increased manifold from last year.
The home of Hampshire, only the second stadium in England apart from the historic Old Trafford to have an integrated hotel inside the stadium complex, were preferred by the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to host their Tests in Bio Bubble in 2020 against the West Indies and Pakistan, respectively.
The prestigious final of World Test Championship, originally scheduled to be held at the Lord’s, was later moved to Southampton as late as in March – keeping in mind the obvious advantages of the venue as both India and New Zealand were scheduled for prolonged stays here including the quarantine period.
It is Hampshire’s fourth home and its most state-of-the-art, designed by award-winning architects Michael Hopkins & Partners and hosted its inaugural first-team match in 2001. The ground, shaped like a circular amphitheatre, and its highlight – the three-storey pavilion with canopied roof – is a splendid feat of architecture.
The ground hosted England’s first Twenty20 international against Australia in 2005, floodlights were installed in 2006 and after hosting a series of day-night fixtures against Australia and Pakistan in 2010, the ground became England’s 10th Test venue the following year, when Sri Lanka visited in mid-June.
The ground’s development – costing a whopping £24 million – ran into financial difficulties in 2000, before a Hampshire businessman and cricket enthusiast Rob Bransgrove stepped in to secure its future. In 2006, the venue lost out to Cardiff in the race for Test status, but Bransgrove reacted by investing another £35 million.
The Ageas Bowl, Southampton
Capacity: 6,500 (20,000 with temporary seating)
End names: Pavilion End, Hotel End
Home teams: Hampshire, Hampshire 2nd XI