There cannot be many genuine cricket followers, even in the subcontinent, who weren’t, if only subconsciously , happy at the outcome of the inaugural World Test Championship final, contested over four, five or six days (depending on one’s point of view) at The Hampshire Bowl. New Zealand’s victory, comfortable enough according to the scoreboard but painstakingly narrow as a matter of fact, over the might of India, after all the international tribulations of the last few years, seemed, well, right.
Of the eleven who played for New Zealand in Southampton, seven had appeared in the traumatic 2019 World Cup final at Lord’s: captain Kane Williamson, Tom Latham, Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, Colin de Grandhomme, Tim Southee (twelfth man at Lord’s) and Trent Boult. Of the remaining four, Devon Conway and Kyle Jamieson had made their international debuts since Lord’s – Conway of course about six weeks ago, and B-J Watling and Neil Wagner are basically red ball cricketers. Williamson, Taylor, Southee and Boult had played in the World Cup final of 2014-15 at the MCG when New Zealand had lost to Australia. This group of players had been through a lot together.
They have achieved a lot too, especially in red ball cricket but so much of it is under the radar partly because they rarely play more than two Tests in a series, even against The Big Three. In England in 2015, the home side played two Tests against New Zealand followed by five against Australia; there is no doubt about which series produced the higher quality matches. (Williamson, Taylor, Latham, Watling, Southee, and Boult all appeared in that series.)
The relatively small amount of Test cricket played by New Zealand means that even their biggest names tend to get overlooked when people assess the best in the modern era. The remarkable Williamson, to be fair is exempt from this; he is universally recognised as one of the three best batsmen in the world. But he has only played 85 Tests since his debut in 2010. (Much was made by the pundits of Williamson’s poor form on previous visits to England; oddly enough I have seen him “live” once in England, in a World Cup match against South Africa at Edgbaston in 2019 – he scored a century.) Southee has played 79 Tests since 2008 and taken 314 wickets at 28.22. James Anderson has taken 617 wickets at 26.67 in 162 Tests. Do the math. (No current player has hit more than Southee’s 53 sixes in his Test career; next among current Test players from all countries is Taylor, with 36.)
The format of the World Test Championship has not been ideal. COVID has been only partly to blame for that. As I have said before New Zealand have had a certain amount of luck with scheduling and their away record is hardly stellar, being thumped 3-0 in Australia and drawing in Sri Lanka. Nobody seriously doubted, however, that they and India were worthy finalists. India, not surprisingly, with all their resources, were felt by most informed observers to be a marginally better outfit in “neutral” conditions. As it turned out of course the conditions were far more similar to Auckland than to Ahmedabad, and New Zealand had the considerable advantage of warming up with two Tests against England.
The final itself was a wonderful match. This may seem an odd thing to say given that it was relatively low-scoring – only two batsmen, Conway and Williamson, made half-centuries – and much of what scoring there was was very cautious; on the third morning Williamson made seven not out in 75 balls. In India’s second innings Jamieson bowled 24 overs without conceding a boundary.
It doesn’t sound very exciting does it? But it was exciting. Despite, or perhaps in some weird way because, of the appalling weather which wiped out two complete days and caused time to be lost on three others, the game saw Test match cricket being played at its incomparable best. This is always likely to be the case when the balance between bat and ball is marginally or otherwise in favour of the latter. This was the case here. The pace bowling attacks of both sides were superb and unrelenting. To survive and score runs required technique, nerve and character. Opening the batting in England has been a desperate challenge in recent years; the openers in this match did not score huge runs – Conway did get the top score of 54 – but all four showed character.
The game had wonderful ebb and flow, especially of course on the exciting and dramatic final day. I had caught bits and pieces of the earlier days but I watched the whole of the sixth. I was lucky enough to be invited to watch it in a Kiwi friend’s man cave with three of his compatriots. We were splendidly fed and watered sitting in comfort in front of a big screen. Relaxing? My goodness – the rage, the grief, the relief when it was all over.
At the start of play, because so much time had been lost, a draw seemed the most likely result. After all there were just two wickets down in the third innings of the match. In that first session New Zealand took three wickets, Jamieson crucially removing Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara. At lunch Risharbh Pant – dropped on five by Southee in the slips – was batting with Ravindra Jadeja. It was clear that these two had the ability to take the game away from New Zealand.
When they, and R Ashwin, were out in quick succession, however, all of a sudden the draw, from being the most likely result, had become the least likely one. But who was going to win?
(It really was just as well England weren’t playing. Of course they are only a mid-table Test side, but according to the England & Wales Cricket Board the potential audience / spectators are too thick to appreciate the glorious uncertainty of Test cricket; hence the apparent need for The Hundred.)
I am no anthropologist but I could tell from the reaction of my Kiwi companions that a New Zealand victory could not be regarded as a cast-iron certainly. The openers fell in a flurry to Aswin after tea, and Taylor, as usual these days, looked horribly uncertain to start with and was dropped at slip. But they got there.
As a whole, the win was a fabulous team effort. Jamieson and Southee were outstanding with ball and bat. Scorecards can be almost misleading. This one won’t tell the reader about Nicholls’ astonishing catch to dismiss Pant on the final afternoon, or that Watling, brave and unobtrusive to the end in his final Test, kept wicket for a couple of hours with a dislocated finger, or about Wagner’s unrelenting energy.
But the scorecard will tell you what happened at the end. It was Williamson and Taylor who took their country home. That, too, was so right. As always I tried to think of a historical comparison. It wasn’t difficult. Coronation year, 1953 (I wasn’t there, I hasten to add). The Ashes.. Australia have held them since 1934. It’s the fifth Test at The Oval. The series is poised at nil-all. England are set 132 to win in the fourth innings. They win by eight wickets, and it is the celebrated pair of Bill Edrich and Denis Compton who get them over the line.
Some sporting achievements live for ever in the popular mind. You don’t even have to have been there.
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