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WTC final rages against the dying light as regulations come under scrutiny again

Compelling contest runs aground on officials' interpretation of bad light rules

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
The World Test Championship final is trying, really rather hard, to splutter into life in a manner befitting the status of the contest. But the weather is doing its best to sink the occasion before it can gain the traction it both needs and deserves and, dare one say it, the officialdom hasn't exactly been playing to the gallery either.
What little action we've witnessed in a fraction over a third of the scheduled playing time - 64.4 overs out of a possible 180 - has been utterly compelling. Two outstanding Test teams have given no quarter in an arm-wrestle for the ascendancy, from India's openers' thrilling response to the new ball, to New Zealand's depth and variety of seam options finding the nous and the skill to wrench the contest back into the balance.
But out of that parity, paralysis is already looking the likely outcome, even though the ICC has the option to trigger their reserve day on Wednesday, after a frustrating second afternoon in which the umpiring amounted to a very precise definition of "zealous".
All day long, the rain radar had warned that something damp and nasty was surging up from the English Channel towards Southampton's coastline, with a relentless menace that evoked the poster art of Jaws. By 7pm, however, that promised deluge had still to arrive, even though the beaches had been cleared several hours in advance - three lengthy delays for bad light, each perhaps best measured against the near-continuous action on a gloomy but gripping final day of the Women's Test in Bristol.
Debates will rage and the fans will boo - a hardy and passionate mixture of Indians and Kiwis kept the atmosphere bubbling in spite of the compromised circumstances, and frankly they deserved better for their patience and patronage. But nothing that Michael Gough and Richard Illingworth did was out of keeping with the ICC's unhelpfully ambiguous playing condition 2.7.1 - which states that the umpires alone decide if the conditions are "dangerous or unreasonable", with the caveat that play should not stop "merely because they are not ideal".
There were mitigating circumstances aplenty. Both Shubman Gill and Cheteshwar Pujara took thumping blows to the helmet during the course of a tough day's play - Gill's blow, full frontal in the visor, was Kyle Jamieson's emphatic response to his hitherto successful tactic of batting outside his crease, and when a 6ft 7in beanpole is bearing down on you in less-than-ideal circumstances, the risk of serious injury can never be discounted. But by the time the players were hoicked off for an early tea at 3.11pm, Virat Kohli in particular was batting with a poise and focus that made it pretty clear he was sighting the ball just fine.
And as a consequence, bad light has become the ultimate "umpire's call" - a necessarily subjective decision that, once made, tends to be all too final. Last summer, on this same ground, the same quartet of officials - onfield umpires Gough and Illingworth, third umpire Richard Kettleborough and match referee Chris Broad - oversaw a similarly grinding delay on the second afternoon against Pakistan, one that ultimately ensured there would be no result, once a rather more definitive band of rain had wrecked the final day too.
"It was pretty frustrating," Jamieson admitted. "When you bowl three or four balls and you go off, and then come back on for another couple and then you go off again, it's not how you'd like it ideally. But it's just the cards we've been dealt, and it's the same with rain. We've all played in games throughout our careers where we've been off for rain or off for bad light.
"Obviously the spectacle is such a special one for everyone involved, and you don't want that to be curtailed by bad light or rain, but it's kind of part and parcel of what we sign up for, and hopefully we get some good amount of play in tomorrow."
So we sit tight, and we wait - much as Pujara and Kohli sat tight during an absorbing afternoon stand that had as its very raison d'etre the belief that better times would be around the corner. If cricket fans can, quite rightly, find fascination in the addition of 18 runs in 12 overs prior to Pujara's extraction, it shouldn't be asking too much to accept that, sometimes, you just have to delay your gratification and accept that bad weather is just another passage of epic stone-walling. There's little (besides the installation of a £100 million roof and the consequent wrecking of fair-weather ambience) that any cricket venue in the world can do about such elemental matters.
And so to the action itself - so finely poised that it is almost too soon to judge the success or failure of any tactics, except to say that India got off to an utter flyer, one that rather evoked the inverse scenario of the 2015 World Cup final, when Brendon McCullum tried to be similarly positive against Mitchell Starc, and scuttled his team's innings in the process.
With that in mind, there were inevitable mutterings that New Zealand had bottled their big occasion once again as Rohit Sharma and Gill climbed with calculated aggression into the new-ball offerings of Trent Boult and, especially, Tim Southee. Gill was savage on the short ball, but Sharma's response to the swinging ball was especially masterful, hitting with the curl rather than falling into the trap of playing with straight-lined discipline and bringing the slips into play more readily.
Somewhere in his ECB-sanctioned mothballs, James Anderson will already be taking notes. He's not yet taken a new-ball wicket this summer, and on this evidence, Sharma in particular has no intention of being his first.
"Rohit and Gill both showed a lot of patience, but at the same time they showed a lot of intent," Vikram Rathore, India's batting coach, said at the close. "They were looking to score runs whenever they had an opportunity, and that is what batting is all about."
But New Zealand hauled the game back by degrees, with the depth and verve of their five-man seam attack justifying (at this early stage at least) the decision not to omit one of their very different options in favour Ajaz Patel's spin - no matter what Shane Warne has to say on the matter.
Colin de Grandhomme performed on Kohli the same sort of confidence trick he played on Joe Root in the 2019 World Cup final, dangling his unhittably accurate wobblers just far enough out of his arc to invite danger if he second-guessed his response, while Neil Wagner - force of nature that he is - channelled the vein-throbbing fury of being overlooked until the 25th over into a third-ball extraction of Gill, playing for swing when this time there was none - before ratcheting his length back, for arguably the first time this tour, to challenge his quarry to take on the uppercut in a typically back-breaking spell.
But it was Jamieson who made the first incision, and unquestionably the most crucial one, given how integral Sharma's strokeplay had been to India's agenda-setting first hour. Advancing out of the pitch to the skiddier members of the attack was all very well, but Jamieson's vertical take-off proved to be a very different challenge, as he reeled off 14 overs for 14 runs in a cauterising display.
"If they were walking [out of the crease], they weren't comfortable with where I was bowling when they were on the crease," Jamieson said. "So I tried to take that as a bit of a positive that we were winning the battle. If they felt like they had to move around to throw us off, if we could just hang in that area that would bring dividends."
New Zealand's quintet will certainly be fresh for the resumption, and with Rathour suggesting that "250-plus would be reasonable in the conditions", there's clearly enough time for this contest to take proper shape. A greater willingness to let it breathe and become the event it deserves to be, however, would not go amiss either.
"I think the disruptions probably didn't help the momentum we were trying to get and that we had at the time," Jamieson added. "But it's probably pretty even at the moment. It was a pretty good day of Test cricket really."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket