Big pictureImagine that the guardians of Test cricket, in a bid to assess the future health of the grand old game, dispatch a delegate from its golden age through time and space to watch the inaugural World Test Championship final of 2021.
You can take your pick as to when that golden era might exactly have been, but whatever their year of origin, any time-traveller alighting on Southampton this week might assume Test cricket was in a pretty moribund state. Here, after all, is the sport's brand-new showpiece occasion, more than a decade in the making after endless false starts - ones that screamed, more than anything else, of a fundamental lack of faith in the product.
And instead of taking its rightful place at Lord's, Eden Gardens or the MCG, the contest has been shunted out to a souped-up service station on the lesser-travelled east-bound carriageway of the M27, where for the next five days (or six) India and New Zealand are braced for weather as torrential as the abuse that the WTC format has attracted in the past two years - not least from the new ICC chairman, Greg Barclay, who declared on the day of his investiture last autumn that it was "not fit for purpose".
A maximum of 4000 people a day will be permitted to witness the spectacle - 25% capacity, in keeping with the UK's current lockdown restrictions. That figure might have been more come day four, and the government's so-called Freedom Day of June 21, but that date is a can that has been kicked on down the road for another day.
So there's a fair amount conspiring to dampen the mood, you might say.
There is, however, an alternative narrative, one that, with an iota of heft from those who profess to love and nurture the sport, could be resonating high above this current air of mild apathy.
The WTC final will be taking place in spite of a once-in-a-generation global pandemic at the now-famous Ageas Bowl, cricket's original bio-secure venue, the existence of which unequivocally saved the ECB's bacon in the summer of 2020, and showed the wider cricketing world how to ensure that the show can go on in these times.
The contest will also feature, indisputably and thankfully, the two best Test teams in the world.
There's been nothing pretty about the permutations on the WTC table. The pandemic caused such havoc to the Future Tours Programme that a points average had to be introduced to mitigate the rash of cancelled series. But after flirtations from two flawed outfits, England and Australia, it is India and New Zealand who have surged to the top of the tree, and irrespective of how the coming days pan out, it would be difficult to wish for two better representatives for Test cricket in 2021, both as a statement of its current health, and as an expression of its future hopes.
First and foremost, India's presence is sacrosanct. They are here because they are an outstanding, well-rounded outfit, unbeatable at home and now indomitable overseas, as their stunning, bare-bones triumph in Australia last winter testifies. But the presence of their vast market also gives the format hope of long-term traction - of TV viewership, sponsorship interest, administrative buy-in. All the things that we wish did not matter so much in elite-level sport, but which we know to be key to the cause.
The prospective absence of India from such a showpiece had, after all, been the main sticking point in the broadcast negotiations for the format's abortive first attempts. And now, as it happens, the near converse status applies. Following last month's postponement of the IPL, the void in India's daily sporting diet is so gaping that this one-off contest has an even greater opportunity to seize the limelight and the narrative - if the weather can give it half a chance, of course.
But then there's New Zealand - the David to India's Goliath, the stones in their shoe, as Thomas Tuchel said of Chelsea's Champions League victory over Manchester City. They are a team that has become used to being patronised as plucky underdogs, but they have shown some seriously sharp teeth in their six-year journey to the uppermost echelons of the sport - via Brendon McCullum's heavy-metal cricket at the 2015 World Cup, to Kane Williamson's more sanguine but no less intense leadership in more recent years.
Back at the 2019 World Cup, it was quietly suggested that New Zealand had pooped the Big Three party by knocking India out in their semi-final clash at Old Trafford. However, the extraordinary events of that subsequent final against England proved beyond all question their right to be considered among cricket's on-field elite.
As model of what cricket can be when it looks beyond the self-interest of its big boys, New Zealand's achievements in recent years have been little short of heroic. Who, apart from 1.2 billion-odd Indians, would begrudge them a taste of silverware after such agonising near-misses in recent ICC campaigns?
Most fundamentally, the WTC final is the start of something new for an ancient format. It's taken nigh on 150 years for the sport to reach this point: a willingness to cap Test cricket's eternal quest for context with a true coronation event.
There have been de facto title fights in the recent past, but usually only of a dynastic nature - perhaps most famously, Australia's epic series victory in the Caribbean in 1994-95, the moment at which West Indies' two-decade hegemony was finally ended. The world rankings have added an extra frisson in recent years, especially since the introduction of the ICC's Test mace in 2003, but all too often the handover moments have been lacklustre and debatable, more Duckworth-Lewis recalculation than heavyweight knock-out.
Finally, however, the sport has got its moment, and two sides to savour. New Zealand have warmed up, if that is the right word, with a significant achievement in their own right - a first series win in England since 1999, courtesy a complete squad performance across two Tests at Lord's and Edgbaston. From the form of Devon Conway on debut at Lord's to Tim Southee's ageless display of swing bowling in the same game, they have shown a cohesion that transcends mere experience, and Williamson's elbow niggles aside, could not hope to be better placed for their shot at glory.
India, by contrast, have had only an intra-squad practice to wet their whistle since arriving in England. Yet they have the depth of quality within their ranks to rehearse for most contingencies, and they have been acclimatising in Southampton throughout their build-up period, so could not be better attuned to the ground's vagaries - not least the Australian-style acreage of its vast outfield.
In spite of everything that has conspired against this concept, the moment has finally arrived for Test cricket to reach its pinnacle. Better late than never.
Form guideIndia: WWWLW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
New Zealand: WDWWW
In the spotlightThere were times during India's recent home series against England in which Rohit Sharma was simply outstanding. His 161 on the first day in Chennai was more than his opponents managed in four of their next six completed innings, while his mastery of the ultra-spinning conditions in Ahmedabad provided an even more stark gulf in class. And yet, he arrives in England with a significant point to prove, given the gulf in his home and away averages is threatening to become every bit as much of a chasm. In 18 Tests in India, he averages a staggering 79.52 with seven hundreds and six fifties; elsewhere in the world that slumps to 27.00 from 20 matches, with his highest score outside of Asia coming in Auckland seven years ago, when he made 72 from No. 5. The challenge of the swinging ball, in particular Trent Boult's arc back into the right-hander, will be a significant one for the whole Indian line-up, but the man at the top of the order has the form and the stature to set the tone for his team, so long as he heeds VVS Laxman's advice, and focuses on the whereabouts of his off stump.
It's often said of Kane Williamson's long-standing elbow injury that he is suffering "irritation" in the joint, which is arguably the only time such a mealy-mouthed emotion manifests itself in New Zealand's extraordinarily chilled-out captain. Williamson missed the Edgbaston victory to give himself every chance of full fitness for this, the culmination of his five-year stint as Test captain, and whatever the long-term prognosis, he has done the needful to reclaim his place at No. 3, taking a cortisone injection in the lead-up to the match that he described, with typical under-statement, as "nice". Like McCullum before him, Williamson's personality is imprinted on his team - likeable, tougher than anyone gives them credit for, and perfectly content to be considered a touch dull if it affords them to space to extend their repertoire to its fullest. This week he's been usurped by Steven Smith as the ICC's No. 1-ranked batter, but this is a week, at long last, when such rankings can take second place to tangible rewards. If Williamson bats long, his team has a greater chance to slot into their roles around him.
Team newsNew Zealand made six changes for their series-sealing victory at Edgbaston last week, and they stitched together a perfect match-winning outfit from the outer extremities of their squad. From Will Young at No. 3 to Matt Henry with his player-of-the-match-winning haul, through to Ajaz Patel, who has now officially leap-frogged Mitchell Santner as the team's premier spinner, every man in the XI did his duty to give the team management a serious dilemma. Ross Taylor's mind-over-matter 80 will have done enough to reassert his hold at No. 4, while - fitness permitting - BJ Watling will return behind the stumps for the final appearance of his career. The real dilemmas centre on the fast bowling. Sentiment demands that the old guard - Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner - get the chance to finish the job that they have started, but Henry's form is hard to ignore, as is Kyle Jamieson's point-of-difference lankiness. Might they copy England's approach, and bench Patel in favour of an all-seam attack? Wagner's thirst for exhausting spinner-length spells, allied to Colin de Grandhomme's canny swingers, would mitigate such an approach - even if England's recent experience would caution against it.
New Zealand (possible): 1 Tom Latham, 2 Devon Conway, 3 Kane Williamson (capt), 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Henry Nicholls, 6 BJ Watling (wk), 7 Colin de Grandhomme, 8 Tim Southee, 9 Ajaz Patel/Kyle Jamieson, 10 Neil Wagner, 11 Trent Boult.
The beauty of a one-off Test such as this is that both teams can, to a greater or lesser degree, sack off any over-riding concerns about the conditions and the team balance, or the need to prioritise certain players at certain venues, and just unleash the very best XI that they can muster. And to that end, India have chosen - notwithstanding a week of rain in the offing - to back their twin spinners, Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin to bring their A games in the first instance, and balance the batting in the second, in what on paper looks a devastatingly complete team. There's a fire and ice mixture in the top six, where Rishabh Pant's last Test innings in England gives no reason to doubt that he's ready to kick on from a breakthrough start to his year. Had India felt they needed the extra batter, Hanuma Vihari would have been the back-up option. Jasprit Bumrah is the nailed-on new-ball option with Kohli opting for Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma as other pace options as the BCCI announced the team on the eve of the final. Shami was desperately unlucky on the last tour of England in 2018 - more so than his 16 wickets at 38.87 suggest - but Ishant has been averaging 23 in all conditions since 2015. The experience he's gleaned in a 14-year career probably deserves to be trusted.
India 1 Rohit Sharma, 2 Shubman Gill, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Rishabh Pant (wk), 7 Ravindra Jadeja, 8 R Ashwin, 9 Ishant Sharma, 10 Mohammed Shami, 11 Jasprit Bumrah.
Pitch and conditionsGadzooks! The long-range weather forecast clearly has a sick sense of humour. The week began with the hottest day of the year in many parts of the UK, the mercury pushing a sweaty 30 degrees, but all it took was the suspicion of a final trim for Simon Lee's lovingly prepared pitch for the heavens to open and all hell to break loose. Assuming the flood warnings subside sufficiently for play to get underway on Friday, Lee has promised a surface with "pace, bounce and carry", which will please the seamers in both squads, and doubtless give Ashwin and Co. plenty to work with too. But if this weather persists, you can expect a nice fuzz of live grass too, many even an entire rainforest beneath the covers.
Stats and trivia
- India have lost both of their previous Tests in Southampton - by 266 runs in 2014, and by 60 runs in 2018.
- However, India did emerge victorious in all three of their previous ICC tournament fixtures at the venue, beating Kenya by 98 runs in the 2004 Champions Trophy, before overcoming South Africa and Afghanistan at the 2019 World Cup.
- New Zealand have won both of their previous completed fixtures at Ageas Bowl, two ODIs against England in 2013 and 2015.
- Williamson needs 44 runs to overtake Stephen Fleming's aggregate of 7172 in Tests, and become New Zealand's second-highest run-scorer of all time, behind Ross Taylor.
- Jadeja needs 46 runs to complete the 2000-run, 200-wicket double, a feat previously achieved by four Indians in Test cricket - Kapil Dev, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and Ashwin.
- India have beaten New Zealand just once in five previous ICC events - at the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. They also lost in the final of New Zealand's only trophy-winning campaign, the ICC knockout in Nairobi in 2000.
Quotes"Every team has their challenges, and some people see ours as being a slightly smaller population. But we are just looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead, and committing to the sort of cricket that is important to us."
Kane Williamson, New Zealand's captain, is focused on the cricket rather than the demographics ahead of the WTC final
"This is not one-day cricket, this is not a T20 game that finishes in a few hours. This a hard-brand of cricket, that we take a lot of pride in. And a great example of that was what you saw in Australia."
Virat Kohli plays down any concerns that last year's World Cup semi-final loss will be a factor in India's minds.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket