’That’s why we love Test cricket’ was the collective feeling as India and New Zealand played out a riveting final of the World Test Championship. It’s an emotion elicited every time a thrilling or absorbing Test is played out. Yet the format has been searching for a context and a facelift for quite some time. The World Test Championship was introduced to provide it. After 59 Tests, 21 series, and a two-year journey, it all came down to the final of the WTC. It was a crucial match in the wider context. The first-ever World Cup final of Test cricket in its 144-year history.
It was advertised and branded as the ‘Ultimate Test’. And it did live up to the billing. The two top yet very different teams?— one aggressive (India) and the other calm and composed (New Zealand)?— put on an exhibition at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton.
It was indeed the ultimate test of patience, technique, skill, perseverance, and nerves.
Virat Kohli in action on Day 2 of the WTC final. AP
In overcast conditions, the Kiwi bowlers struggled to find their lines and lengths early on but they learned quickly. Then they pitched it fuller and produced prodigious swing, more than the opposition. There was great variety on display. They found a way to control the swing via scrambled seam bowling. There were edges beaten, edges induced, catches taken, catches dropped. The ball swung. Amidst the storm, there were two batsmen — Kohli (44 (with just a single boundary hit) and Rahane (49)?— who stood rock solid at the crease displaying a masterclass on how to play swing bowling by standing outside the crease and playing as late as possible. It was gripping. A world-class batsman trying to survive and score; the ultimate show of perseverance.
And then there was this 26-year-old (Kyle Jamieson) playing in just his eighth Test bowling like a 100-Test-old veteran, putting on a show with his inswingers, outswingers, scrambled seam deliveries, hitting the right lines and lengths consistently, and testing the batsmen almost every ball. It was fascinating watching a youngster bowl with such rhythm and menace, swinging them past the inside and outside edges and pinging the helmet as well with the steep bounce he purchases with his 6’ 8” frame.
He beat the tightest and most determined of defences in the game twice, that of Kohli. He played mind games with one of the best in the world, confusing him with a cocktail of swinging deliveries and change of lengths, beating him on the inside edge for an LBW in the first innings, and forcing him to poke at one outside off in the second. Five of his seven wickets were Rohit Sharma, Pujara, Kohli, Kohli, Rishabh Pant. He now has five five-wicket hauls in eight matches including one ten-wicket-haul and a Man of the Match trophy in a WTC final.
Kyle Jamieson, right, appeals successfully for an LBW against Virat Kohli in the 1st innings of the WTC Final. AP
At the other end of the spectrum, there was another world-class player trying to build an edifice, brick by brick, with a tremendous show of resilience and restraint against a world-class bowling attack, playing the slowest 30-plus innings of his career as wickets fell at the other end.? Soft hands, full face of the bat, defence, dead-batting most into the ground. Those 49 runs from Kane Williamson took 177 balls and 222 minutes before patience finally deserted him.
44 (Kohli). 49 (Rahane). 49 (Williamson). Those are some of the best forties Test cricket might have witnessed in a long time. There was discipline, accuracy, movement off the air and off the pitch. There was cloud cover. There was wind. The Test crawled at a snail’s pace. No team scored over three runs an over in the first three innings. It was that tough.
The Indian bowlers couldn’t get their lengths quite right but they showed that they can counter the Kiwi swing with their seam movement. Shami is a rhythm bowler and when he finds it he can be devastating. On Day 3, luck deserted him, like it had in the whole of the 2018 English tour. But on Day 5, he found that deadly rhythm. Two days were completely washed out. There was more time lost due to rain and bad light. But amidst the gloom, Shami lit up the Ageas Bowl and breathed life in the Test.
Mohammed Shami celebrates after cleaning up BJ Watling. AP
The ICC was criticised. The hashtag #ShameOnICC appeared. Why was a match of this magnitude held in the UK? The experts wondered. Why weren’t there more reserve days? Why wasn’t this a timeless Test? Why wouldn’t they allow the Test to continue till 450 overs were bowled? However, very few were cognizant of the fact that in the last 10 years, of the 67 matches played in England, 55 had produced a result, only 11 were drawn. And there were very few options with off-season in most countries. The weather gods might have had a little peep into this statistic and finally smiled.
The Test ebbed and flowed. India struggled against their perennial nemesis?— the lower order and the tail — as the Kiwis took a 32-run lead. It would have looked minuscule in the other Tests but not this one. Those were 32 crucial runs in a Test where the margin of error was minimal. After the young tyro (Jamieson), came the chance of the old warhorse (Tim Southee), the six-hitting monster of Test cricket, to show his worth. Thirty vital runs and two wickets had left the Test tantalisingly poised heading into the final day.
Yes, thank God (and ICC), there was a reserve day.
When everyone was bracing for a foregone conclusion that the Test mace will have to be shared, the match was suddenly reignited. The old and oft-used cliché, ‘anything is possible in cricket’, never felt truer.
It all came down to the battle of minds on that sixth day, the first in Test cricket in England since 1975. New Zealand played with the muddled minds of the Indian batsmen. It was 2020 once again. The past mistakes resurfaced. Lack of clarity of mind had brought their downfall on that 2020 New Zealand tour. It was the same here. Go for runs or play cautious cricket? They couldn’t find the right balance. The shot selection went awry. New Zealand planned and executed it to perfection. Inswing, inswing, inswing, outswing, outside edge boom Kohli gone. Short, short, short, good length, outside edge boom Ravindra Jadeja walks back.
The mini battle of aggression between Rishabh Pant and Neil Wagner was born. Pant swung as if 40 runs were required off the last four overs in a T20 World Cup final. He missed more than he connected. Still, those 41 runs were crucial in the context of the game. The Indian batsmen poked, swung, missed, drove, edged, top-edged, misjudged. And faltered.
139 runs were required to win for the Kiwis, from 53 overs. The fact that India were still in it was a testament to the firebreathing dragon their bowling attack has become over the last few years.
The roller-coaster journey of the Test had another turn scripted, though.
Ashwin gobbled his staple diet of the left-handers (openers Tom Latham and Devon Conway) and suddenly it was a battle of nerves. The fans sprung to life, the stands were buzzing. Amidst relentless pressure with the Indian pacers zipping and nipping them around, it was again down to the monk (Williamson) to play the rescue act.
Kane Williamson in action in the second innings of the WTC final. AP
He again went into the tranquil mode. Brought calm. Weathered the storm. And then unfurled an array of glorious drives, controlled pulls and silken flicks to take it away from the Indians, ably supported by his old mate at the crease, Ross Taylor. Another world-class innings of 52 not out was scripted, probably better than that 49 and probably one of the most important of his career. It was a masterclass in how to tackle swing and seam under pressure.
With just three needed, that quintessential Taylor flick flew over square leg, to the fence. The Kiwis inside the dressing room erupted in a huddle. No exuberant celebrations on the field though, just a couple of fist pumps, smiles, and a warm hug between Williamson and Taylor. Simple. Just like they have played their cricket over the years.
New Zealand players lift the Test Championship Mace after their win in the World Test Championship final against India. AP
After all those years of World Cup heartbreaks, the ‘Nice Guys’ finally finished first. BJ Watling, who perfectly epitomises what this Kiwi side is about, played through the pain with a dislocated finger and walked into the sunset smiling as the World Test Champion.
There was tremendous grit, resilience, skill on display. It was intense, intriguing, exhilarating, and fascinating. At the Ageas Bowl, Test cricket had finally reached its pinnacle.