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India face a tough test against New Zealand in the World Test Championship final

India face off against New Zealand at the World Test Championship final on 18 June in England

India's Rishabh Pant scored a scintillating century against England earlier this year. (Getty Images)

Once upon a time in England, the birthplace of cricket, bowlers were expected to politely deliver the ball underarm. Then, along came a chap disarmingly named Lillywhite, who sent batsmen scurrying with roundarm bowling in the early 19th century. After a heated debate, the action was legalised in 1835, although bowlers got the license to go overarm only in 1864.

The bone of contention was redressing the balance between bat and ball, because cricket was lopsidedly a batsman’s game in the underarm era. Who could hit the hardest and the farthest was the only point of interest. It was when bowlers went overarm that the game evolved, as batsmen had to learn to defend, work the ball for singles, and so on.

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In the present day, the scales have tilted back in the batsman's favour. Fours and sixes on flat pitches attract crowds to limited overs cricket, where a batsman strikes out with impunity, not overly concerned about getting out, and a bowler is mostly relegated to a defensive role. But connoisseurs worry about the erosion of the finer points of the game that make cricket unique.

The World Test Championship (WTC) final between India and New Zealand, starting on 18 June in Southampton, England, is therefore a defining moment. The culmination of giving weighted points to teams for Tests played in the past two years, the WTC is designed to revive interest in the long form of the game.

It’s not just the final—every Test that contributes to ranking the teams now has an added dimension. The recently concluded Test series between India and England, for example, was more than just a bilateral series; it determined who qualified for the WTC final.

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When a superstar like India captain Virat Kohli talks about the pride he takes in “the toughest format of the game”, it draws attention to what’s special about Test cricket. To see a batsman surrounded by close-in catchers, striving to find a balance between survival and scoring against a bowler who’s got the bit between his teeth, in a relentless tussle between the two to gain the upper hand, is what keeps a true cricket lover glued to the action for five days. A good Test has all the twists and turns of an epic novel, as opposed to the economy of a short story that limited overs cricket provides.

A stacked deck

Test cricket isn’t for people with a short attention span. But for diehard fans of the game, this is the real deal. No other sport has a game that stretches across five days—with a proviso of a sixth day in case playing time is lost in the WTC final.

That a two-year campaign is ending in a one-off contest to determine the champion isn’t ideal. The parameters on which points were assigned to teams can also be debated, especially when tours had to be called off. But that we’re having a WTC final at all amidst the ongoing pandemic is a credit to cricket’s administrators and the players.

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The Indian camp has been talking up the need for a series of at least three Tests between the finalists. It has pointed out that their achievements over the past two years shouldn’t be belittled by a loss in one final Test. These are valid points undoubtedly, but perhaps the pre-match lowering of fans’ expectations also betrays a tacit admission that the odds are stacked against India.

English conditions are typically similar to what touring sides encounter in New Zealand, where the ball swings about in the cool air and seams off the grass on the pitch. In Trent Boult and Tim Southee, New Zealand have two seasoned campaigners well versed in exploiting this sideways movement.

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The tall third seamer, Kyle Jamieson, has already shown in his young career that he can be a handful too. An added factor is the Duke’s ball used in England, which swings more than the SG ball used in India or the Kookaburra ball in Australia.

India have a redoubtable pace attack in Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami. It’s just that they’re not as used to bowling in swinging conditions as their Kiwi counterparts. That they’ve both had layoffs for injury this year makes them a tad rusty as well.

India’s third seamer, Ishant Sharma, has become more artful with his bowling late in his career. However, his pace has dropped off, and India may be better off with the rising Mohammed Siraj. It’s surprising that Deepak Chahar, whose bowling style is ideal for English conditions, isn’t in the touring party.

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The Kiwi batsmen too are better adapted to English conditions, having been nurtured on a diet of swing and seam. The double century on debut by opener Devon Conway earlier this month, in New Zealand’s Test series against England preceding the WTC final, is the latest evidence. It will be a tall order for India’s promising new opener, Shubman Gill, to emulate that.

India have struggled to adapt to English wickets on recent tours. This is compounded by quarantines leaving a miniscule window of practice for the Indians. In contrast, New Zealand played two Tests against England right before the WTC final, which gives them a big advantage.

The silver lining for India is that the Rose Bowl pitch in Southampton has been a friend to both seamers and spinners. It was off-spinner Moeen Ali of England who clinched the 2018 series against India with a nine-wicket haul on this ground. Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja will fancy their chances against the Kiwi batsmen from the third day, when the pitch starts wearing. The toss would be vital in the circumstances, because the last innings in Southampton is the toughest.

Glorious uncertainties

Even though New Zealand hold the aces, Indian fans will pin their hopes on one of the joys of cricket, which is its glorious uncertainty. Who could have imagined India turning the Test series around in Australia in the absence of the captain and the entire main bowling unit six months ago? Then came the turnaround at home against England in a series India had to win to make it to the WTC final. This time there will be no second chances, because it’s a solitary Test, but nobody writes off this Indian team under any circumstances any more.

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The Kiwis had a relatively easier ride with three one-sided series wins at home against India, the West Indies, and Pakistan last year. This put them in the WTC final despite a 0-3 loss by big margins in Australia previously.

They’re a side that thrives on seam and swing, which they will get in England. In Kane Williamson, they have an astute and stoic captain in the mould of MS Dhoni, who “can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same,” to quote Rudyard Kipling.

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Williamson is, currently, also the world’s top-ranked Test batsman. He has been hampered this year by a niggling elbow injury, and it remains to be seen if that will cramp his style. The Kiwi captain holds the key to blunting the threat from Ashwin and Jadeja in the second innings, because he’s as good a player of spin as you get. So his fitness may be a decisive factor.

Whatever the result, the real winner in this WTC final will be cricket, by reminding us of the virtues of the traditional long form of the game, with its alluring ebb and flow. After ODI and T20 World Cups, it’s time to anoint the real world champions.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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