India, New Zealand clash in World Test Championship final on Friday

By: AFP      Published: 07:51 AM, 17 Jun, 2021
India, New Zealand clash in World Test Championship final on Friday
File photo of both captains.

India face New Zealand in the inaugural World Test Championship final on Friday in a match that could have a profound influence on cricket globally.

New Zealand are battle-hardened thanks to a 1-0 series win against England completed on Sunday with a dominant eight-wicket win at Edgbaston after a draw at Lord's.

"Ideal preparation, having two Test matches against England in these conditions," said experienced New Zealand batsman Ross Taylor ahead of the five-day match in Southampton, on England's south coast.

"Couldn't think of anything better."

The Blackcaps, who won in Birmingham despite making six changes, are set to welcome back captain and star batsman Kane Williamson and pace spearhead Tim Southee.

Many cricket fans around the world would be happy to see New Zealand, a country with a population of around five million, compared with India's 1.3 billion, win a major global title after their agonising Super Over loss to England in the 2019 50-over World Cup final at Lord's.

There is also widespread admiration for the way a well-balanced side has made the most of slender resources.

India have not played a competitive game since the end of March and have had to make do with an intra-squad practice match while undergoing quarantine.

But they proved their strength in depth when an injury-hit side recovered from the humiliation of being dismissed for 36 in the first Test in Australia to win a four-match series 2-1 with a sensational chase in Brisbane in January -- and that without inspirational captain Virat Kohli.

The gifted batsman is now back in charge of a side that also features Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane as well as spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, with a pace attack led by Jasprit Bumrah.

"India's batting depth is the envy of the cricketing world," India great Sunil Gavaskar, one of cricket's most outstanding opening batsmen, told AFP.

- 'Playing with freedom' -

Rahane said the mental approach would be key to India's success.

"I think what is important in this Test match is playing with freedom, playing fearless cricket as a team and backing each other. That will really help us rather than thinking about the result."

That the World Test Championship final, which comes after two years of series to determine the finalists, is taking place at all is something of a triumph for the International Cricket Council.

It seemed the sheer complexity of a congested global calendar meant the first attempt to crown a global Test champion since the 1912 Triangular Tournament featuring England, Australia and South Africa would not get off the drawing board.

First suggested in 2008, the concept almost foundered because of broadcasters' concerns that India, cricket's economic powerhouse, would fail to make the final, while many countries were far from enthused by the concept.

But the competition did get going eventually, although not helped by an initially complicated points system designed to reflect the varying numbers of Tests played by different nations, partly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Cricket chiefs settled on a method of percentage of points won rather than total points.

The financial ramifications of the match could extend well beyond the $1.6 million on offer to the winners and the $800,000 collected by the runners-up.

When India win an ICC event for the first time it tends to have a transformative effect on cricket as a whole.

India's triumph at the 1983 World Cup changed their attitude to one-day internationals, with those matches becoming the financial motor both of its own cricket and the world game

And the T20 revolution that led to the lucrative Indian Premier League, was ushered in by India's victory over arch-rivals Pakistan in the inaugural 2007 World Twenty20 in South Africa.

At a time when many fear for Test cricket's long-term future, if India become world champions it could be a significant boost for the sport's oldest international format.

Three keys to final

India and New Zealand face off in the inaugural World Test Championship final at Southampton starting Friday, with a host of modern-day cricket's best red-ball players on show.

Below AFP Sport looks at three key areas where the game might be won and lost.

Kohli v Williamson

India captain Virat Kohli and New Zealand counterpart Kane Williamson are also two of the finest batsmen of their generation. 

Both skippers have scored more than 7,000 Test runs apiece, with each averaging over fifty -- the mark of enduring excellence. 

Kohli has the better record in England, however, having made two Test hundreds during a 2018 series.

The duo present a fascinating contrast in styles with Williamson's serene demeanour at the crease and understated leadership seemingly ideally suited to New Zealand's needs.

Meanwhile, Kohli's aggression and demanding desire for personal excellence has improved both India's overall fitness levels and helped instil in his side a will to win every bit as fierce as his own.

Williamson's men won out when the teams last met in a showpiece ICC event in England by coming through a tense 2019 World Cup semi-final at Old Trafford.

And while both sides have shown they can win without their skippers, India triumphing in Australia without Kohli earlier this year, and New Zealand completing a series win over England last week in Williamson's absence, the two captains could yet have a major influence on the final.

The attacks

Both teams have exceptional attacks, although New Zealand should have an edge in match fitness after all their leading quick got game time during their recent 1-0 win in a two-match series away to England. 

All of India's likely bowlers in the final are in the top 20 of the ICC rankings, off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin leading the way at number two while Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami and Ishant Sharma form a pace trio who can all move the ball off a good length.

But in Tim Southee and Trent Boult, New Zealand have a proven new-ball combination with Boult's left-arm angle an all the more useful variation when allied to his late swing.

Such are their resources that Matt Henry, who took six wickets at Edgbaston, could miss the showpiece match should both Southee and the towering Kyle Jamieson return.

India would appear to have the edged when it comes to spin, although New Zealand left-armer Ajaz Patel will be keen to impress against the country of his birth after edging Mitchell Santner out of the squad following an encouraging display against England at Edgbaston.

The wicketkeepers

New Zealand wicketkeeper BJ Watling has said he will retire from cricket after the final while at 23 the best years of India counterpart Rishabh Pant's career could still be ahead of him.

South Africa-born Watling, 35, has been a mainstay of the Blackcaps' rise up the Test rankings, with generally sound work behind the stumps supplemented by 3,789 runs in 74 Tests at an average of 37.89 including eight hundreds.

He did, however, miss the Edgbaston match because of a sore back, with Tom Blundell taking over the gloves.

Pant is a stunningly aggressive batsman, averaging over 45 in Test cricket with three hundreds in 20 matches. India's tour of Australia this year saw him produce breathtaking innings of 159 not out at Sydney and an unbeaten 89 at Brisbane that sealed a series win.

But he can have moments of fallibility behind the stumps, while Watling was not at his best in the field during the drawn first Test at Lord's.

And for all their run-scoring ability, it may be the wicketkeeper who misses the fewest chances at Southampton that has the biggest impact in determining which side is crowned Test cricket's first world champions.