Saturday, day two
It was a grey day on the English south coast and at the Ageas Bowl a blanket of cloud wrapped itself around the world of cricket on its big day out. There were "gleams of hope" - as JWT Turner once wrote of the oppressive London he painted at the turn of the 18th century - both in Sir Michael Hopkins' architecture and among the players representing India and New Zealand but not a glimmer of sunshine as the toss was won, the jousting began and the small number of spectators - restricted by Covid-19's wide remits - drifted in, masked, sanitised and ready for action at last.
Who would win, asked the big screen, and 85% favoured India, which seemed to almost exactly reflect the make-up of the crowd. The few New Zealand fans waved their flags and a sprinkling of English neutrals settled in to watch the India openers remind them of the days when the English were the ones with the requisite technique for the damp and challenging conditions to hand.
New Zealand bowled a little short and Shubman Gill pulled hard and fair to the midwicket boundary with the sort of time to spare that Barry Richards once displayed for the county that plays on this splendid field. He opened with Gordon Greenidge; two great players, who together lit up the English first-class scene in the 1970s. Greenidge stayed until 1987 before the number of overseas players per county was reduced, and Richards drifted into retirement after the rebel tours to South Africa in the early 1980s gave him a final taste of what the years of South Africa's isolation had taken from him.
Between 1976 and 1984, West Indies and South Africa would have likely contested many a World Test Championship final. We know the West Indies team well enough, so imagine a South African side with Richards, Graeme Pollock and Mike Procter; Jimmy Cook, Peter Kirsten, Allan Lamb and Clive Rice; Lee Irvine/Ray Jennings; Garth Le Roux, Vince van der Bijl and Denys Hobson - to name just a few.
At the other end from Gill was the sublime gift to the game that is Rohit Sharma. When the New Zealand attack overcorrected and pitched up, he drove with power and panache, a man at last comfortable in the skin of a Test opening batter.
At first, we watched these early exchanges side-on and were surprised by Tim Southee's pace and carry to the wicketkeeper. Then we moved to seats - jaw-droppingly expensive seats - alongside the sightscreen to see some seam movement but not the swing we expected. For most of the two hours prior to lunch, New Zealand were below par and India a bit above. But the ball was softening, the lacquer on it being bashed away, and over lunch the New Zealand coaches were ready with their plotting for a better afternoon.
And that afternoon was a dogfight, won by Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane through the power of their will and the straightness of their bats. The New Zealand seamers, five of them, found some mojo and the two Indians fought as if their lives - or indeed the heavyweight title of the WTC - depended upon it. "Hell of a player, that Kohli," said Ted Dexter on the telephone. That's the Ted Dexter who was inducted into the ICC Hall of Fame this very week; the Ted Dexter whose concern about the techniques in English batting now runs deep.
We ran into Rod Bransgrove, the Hampshire chairman who saved the county from dissolution when the ground was being developed and the money had run out. He is a marvellous man, if oddly unloved at the ECB, which must see his autonomy as some sort of a threat. Bransgrove pushes hard for the Rose Bowl's place in the order of international things and this, it seems, ruffles feathers in the corridors of power.
Also on site was Bill Hughes, vice-chairman of the club when I was captain, and it was over dinner after a day's play at Headingley in 1987 that Bill and I, along with the third in our number that night, the president Wilfrid Weld, came up with the idea of this ground and then pushed and worked hard for its future. All three of us were on hand to see it open to first-class cricket 14 years later. For sure, 14 years is a long time, but such ambition is often thwarted by markets and circumstance. Bransgrove was the saviour and the game owes him more than a wary eye.
You can imagine the pride then, when we looked out to Kohli's resolute defence in the face of Trent Boult's fine left-arm inswing and thought, "Wow!" The modern heroes of the game on show and on song on this piece of land leased to us by an Oxford college and turned into one of cricket's most popular venues. Hughes said simply, "Every time I come here, I feel the same fizz of excitement. Today feels like the final realisation of the dream we had all those years ago."
The best in the world, playing it out for the newest and grandest title. I felt much the same as Bill. We had ridden the waves, survived more than our fair share of sharks and rips and dumps, and made it to the sandy shore.
Sunday, day three
The television is on as two of my favourite cricketers, Kohli and Rahane, walk to the pitch. Chalk and cheese, these two - one all animation and explosive reaction, the other all calm and understated response. When Kohli left Australia to return home for the birth of his first child before Christmas last year, it was Rahane who took the captain's armband for the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne and made one of the great hundreds. That innings regenerated Indian self-esteem after the humiliation of being knocked over for 36 in Adelaide and set up one of history's finest series and most dramatic wins.
Kohli's footwork is electric, his timing pure and his running between the wickets Olympian. Rahane is working like Yohan Blake to keep up with him. New Zealand are looking to dry up the game, but these two class batters know that game and respond with purpose. Though not for long because, out of the blue, Kohli falls lbw to a beaut of a ball from 6ft 8inch Kyle Jamieson. You can leave most of what Jamieson bowls but not all. The big blond lad then snaffles Rishabh Pant (boo, we wanted an hour of Pant) and Rahane falls foul of the Neil Wagner bumper tactic. Goodness, Wagner takes a lot of wickets with the short ball: what a cricketer he is, a man to take to the trenches.
On television, Dinesh Karthik sounds good and on Twitter, Harsha Bhogle generously says as much. Karthik sparkled as an extra on Sky's coverage during England's recent tour of India, making intelligent comment at intermittent stages of the day's play from his home in India. How the great world spins: one minute going to battle for the Kolkata Knight Riders, the next whispering sweet opinion in England's ears.
New Zealand are right on it now. The ball is talking and the bat doesn't like what its hearing. Ravindra Jadeja, playing solidly down the line, is beaten by a couple of crackerjack deliveries. Kane Williamson's decision to bowl is finally being rewarded by his bowlers. Mind you, these are the sort of conditions about which Fred Trueman might have said, "We can get most of this match done this morning, sunshine!" You'd have backed Sir Richard Hadlee or Kapil Dev to have felt much the same.
Post lunch, OMG, a distant yellow ball of fire is poking its head between the clouds. It is typical England this - a couple of weeks of Mediterranean summer and then, come the moment of need for a fabulous cricketing occasion, this wretched winter greyness - Richter-like every damn day - cold and wet. Still, this hint of sun lifts New Zealand hearts because it is accompanied by three quick wickets and the fall of India from 146 for 3 overnight to 217 all out. The big, tall blond took five, for the fifth time in a short career thus far. It will be a long one if his body holds hard.
At tea, Kumar Sangakkara, is presented with his framed ICC Hall of Fame cap by Sunil Gavaskar. No better man for the job. The space for medals on Sangakkara's breastplate is running out; some cricketer, some guy. Moments after 6pm, up come black-and-white photographs of the aforementioned Dexter, who is with Sangakkara in this most recent tranche of ICC hall-of-famers. Nasser Hussain's words are kind and suitably upbeat. Ted is not so sprightly right now and unable to be at the Ageas Bowl, but his mood is lifted by the honour and the burst of attention - fantastic cricketer, captain of England as well as later chairman of selectors, and the man behind the world rankings system that lives to this day.
Guess who is still batting? Devon Conway, that's who. He of the Lord's double-hundred the other day. He is an old pal of Quinton de Kock and they will be back on the ground together for the Southern Brave in the Hundred. Conway keeps the game simple - funny how well that works. Indeed, a feature of this two-day watching brief are the time-honoured methods on show. It is no coincidence that orthodox is a default position for all the best players. They go back to the basics, these fellows and, hey, the runs and wickets come flooding back.
Oh, Conway is out. With clouds rolling in, Kohli brought the seamers back and Conway chipped a full ball from Ishant Sharma to mid-on. Now, they've all gone off early because of bad light, as they did too early on Saturday. Dickie Bird once said we should play in all light, except Armageddon. "Y'know, them black thunderstorms and lightning, but otherwise play in all light." That opinion was out there once all batters had taken to helmets and long before floodlights did their bit to further improve the viewing. I'm with Dickie.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator