World Test Championship: The Final Saga

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PREVIEW: India will Face New Zealand at the Ageas Bowl this June for the Final Chapter of the First World Test Championship

After a crushing 3-1 victory against England, the Indian juggernaut is ready to roll into England for the final of the first proper ICC arranged, World Test Championship against an equally unstoppable New Zealand. Cricket purists worldwide have wanted a proper ICC trophy for the most important format of the game for years. Now that we’re finally here at the final stage, we have so much to talk about!

Both teams are coming in with monumental series victories at home against good test sides. But the venue for the finals being England evens out the home advantage factor, which is the most significant influence in a test match. Anywhere in the world, a cricket pitch changes and morphs into something that benefits one or the other aspect of the game, and teams have players who have expertized playing against these changes.

That being said, when it comes to conditions, New Zealand definitely has the advantage. Where they come from, they have a harsher version of the conditions that England have since the stadiums are windier, the conditions are more overcast, and the pitches greener. These conditions aid the kind of bowling attack New Zealand has, which is expert pace and swing bowling.

If we have learnt one thing in the course of this entire 2 year-long tournament, it is to never under-estimate this Indian test side. They have overcome adversity and dominated in situations where no one would give them the slightest advantage. The series win in Australia, especially the Brisbane test, is a testimony to what this team can do. So let’s just say that based on the conditions and India’s knack for pulling off miracles, this one-off test match is going to be evenly poised, at least on paper.

Let’s look at what to expect from both teams one by one!

INDIA

Possible Playing XI:

Shubhman Gill, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (C), Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant (wk), Hardik Pandya, Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah

India has recently been making a lot of noise on the test cricket market based on their last two series’. Their comebacks in both Australia and against England at home are remarkable feats and have really shown the world the quality they possess in terms of bench strength. But, this time, they don’t have the chance to come back, and the quality of their bench strength wouldn’t account for anything since they don’t have time to learn from their mistakes.

They have to analyze the conditions well and pick the 11 they hope will win them this one game. It is more challenging than ever for India to do so because they have more options than ever, and leaving anybody out would mean lots of questions raised later if unsuccessful. 

That being said, some changes that can be expected include the return of the only quality seam-bowling all-rounder, Hardik Pandya, into the setup since English conditions call for one. His experience in the whites has been absent as of late, but the last time he did play test cricket was in England, where he also got a 5-for. His recent maturity and application in batting may earn him this spot.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Strengths: For the first time in decades, India has a pace battery that can rub shoulders with any team in the world. The likes of Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma are the mainstays of this line-up that paired with Md. Shami has shown the world that they are to be feared anywhere on the globe.

Even if they, for some reason, were to miss out due to injury or any other factor, India is backed up with high quality (and tested) pace bowlers ready to take the 3rd bowler spot or replace any of the three in the form of Md. Siraj, Umesh Yadav, Shardul Thakur, or T. Natrajan.

The return of Bhuvaneshwar Kumar to fitness is a significant factor that nobody seems to be talking about. A swing bowling wizard, Bhuvi is set to make a comeback in the upcoming white-ball games against England. If all clicks for Kumar, he could make a big difference to this already strong side! This pace attack should give India a lot of confidence going into the Mecca of swing/seam bowling conditions.

Weaknesses: Recent match-winning batting displays by Pant, Sundar, Ashwin, and Shardul Thakur earlier in Australia have shrouded over the fact that the feared engine room of the Indian batting tank of Pujara, Kohli, and Rahane have more or less been shooting blanks lately. Sure there have been half-centuries here and there to remind everyone of their class, but other than the match-winning hundred at MCG by Rahane, these 3 haven’t been doing much damage at all.

Rishabh Pant coming into his always suspected match-winning potential is an excellent sign for India. But the day where nothing works out will be the middle order that will have to take the fall. Swinging conditions are the only place India hasn’t won a lot in recent times because the batting suffers. Even in the World Test Championship, the only series defeat was handed to India by New Zealand in their home conditions in a 2-0 clean sweep.

For India to succeed in this one crucial game, they will need centuries from the middle order. Rohit’s excellent form and the fact that Pant already has a hundred in England are all great signs for India, but the middle order must succeed!

NEW ZEALAND

Possible Playing XI:

Tom Latham, Tom Blundell, Kane Williamson (c), Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling (wk), Mitchell Santner, Kyle Jamieson, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner, Trent Boult

And here they are, in yet another ICC final! With poor luck the last 2 times they did this, New Zealand will be looking to grab this opportunity with both hands, by the throat, and threaten it with an intense look in their eyes to not go anywhere. When it comes to ICC tournaments, New Zealand has been one of the few sides that have the better of India. New Zealand is also the only team to defeat India and win a series when it comes to recent tests. New Zealand definitely has a slight advantage over India when it comes to the playing conditions since their batters and bowlers are more comfortable. But they would be idiots to think that they could just walk into this game and walk out with a trophy.

Kane Williamson’s boys will have an even better advantage over India, a 2 match test series right before the WTC final in England against England. There is no better way to prepare for this monumental final than this. Most Indian players (and some of New Zealand too) would be busy in the IPL with a very different format and mindset. The Blackcaps could work this to their advantage by focusing on the WTC final and making the necessary tweaks during their two tests in England.   

Strengths and Weaknesses

Strengths: When you think of modern New Zealand cricket, you think Kane Williamson. The New Zealand skipper is one of the most prolific batsmen of our time, and his recent form in test cricket is something to be scared of. The Blackcaps pace battery is another aspect of their side, which makes them really strong in England’s swinging and seaming conditions.

With Boult, Southee, and Wagner, New Zealand have one of the best pace attacks globally and add to that newcomer Kyle Jamieson and his multiple fifers, you have a pace attack that can potentially take 20 wickets; twice in a day!

New Zealand also bats really deep, with Kyle Jamieson at the bottom end of their recognized batsmen. Even Southee and Wagner have been known to fire when needed. Most of their recognized batsmen have double hundreds in test cricket. With Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, and BJ Watling, the skipper Williamson has plenty of quality support in the middle order.

Weaknesses: Regardless of how similar the English conditions are for New Zealand, they will still haven’t been tested in foreign conditions and excelled in recent times. In the last 3 years, they have not played outside New Zealand all that much, and in the two times they did, they have drawn one series with Sri Lanka and lost 3-0 to Australia. This is something that could be a concern for New Zealand.

Another reason for concern could be the batting. The Blackcaps could have a case of over-reliance on their captain when it comes to putting up the big runs. Against a quality bowling line-up like India’s, New Zealand batsman will have to pull out all they have. Senior batsman Ross Taylor has been short of some runs. He needs to put this bad run behind him and come out swinging to stay in the game relevantly.

Also, if the pitch does anything at all for spin bowlers, New Zealand will have to be very wary of Ashwin since he doesn’t need much help from the pitch to do his magic anyway.

A Grand Finale Worth the Wait

India is now the number one test team on the WTC ranking chart and the ICC Test Team Rankings. After all the scrutiny towards changing the qualification system because of the pandemic, India didn’t let that affect them after all. Dragging themselves through long, tough test series one after another and being prevalent on the other side of it will give them a lot of confidence to win an ICC trophy after so long.

New Zealand, however, is still searching for their first ICC trophy, not counting the ICC Knockout Championship (Later Champion’s Trophy) in 2000-01. They have been heartbreakingly close in the last two 50-over world cups, but this time most things are in their favour. They face a formidable adversary in India and would be keen to win the first World Test Championship.

Regardless of who wins, this cycle of the championship has definitely gotten public interest back in test cricket, which means an overall development of intelligent watchers of the game. Meanwhile, let’s prepare ourselves for a storm of white ball frenzy with the upcoming Ind-Eng series and the IPL!