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Tour and tournament reports

World Test Championship - The Final

India vs New Zealand, Southampton, June 18-23, 2021

Hugh Chevallier
New Zealand's pace quartet, Kyle Jamieson, Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner, celebrate  •  Gareth Copley/ICC/Getty Images

New Zealand's pace quartet, Kyle Jamieson, Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner, celebrate  •  Gareth Copley/ICC/Getty Images

New Zealand won by eight wickets. Toss: New Zealand.
A performance of breathtaking class from Kyle Jamieson decided this low-scoring, slow-burning classic. Indeed, such was the quality, intensity and brio of the whole contest that it almost floored its critics. The World Test Championship, they argued, was itself flawed if determined by a one-off game.
They had a point: the essence of long-form cricket is the ebb and flow of momentum over a number of matches - and it felt wrong that the only fixture of the entire competition not to be part of a series was its climax.
Kohli, the Indian captain, was clear: "I am not in absolute agreement with deciding the best Test side in the world over the course of one game." That may or may not have contained a hidden complaint, while the coach, Ravi Shastri, may or may not have damned with faint praise when he said victory had gone to the better team "in the conditions".
Space in the international schedule, of course, was at a premium, so a complex matrix of 60 Tests boiled down to this solitary game, played in a three-quarters-empty stadium. The blank seats did not reflect a lack of interest, but adherence to pandemic regulations, which had also forced a move from Lord's.
The standard of play would have graced any ground, yet for much of the game it looked as if it would count for naught, the crown shared. That would have been an uncomfortable outcome for all, including the ICC, but they had wisely built in a reserve day. It was not a six-day Test, they insisted: there was simply the facility to make up overs lost during the first five, which turned out to be a whopping 225, exactly half the scheduled 450.
On the face of it, there was no contest. India, a nation of 1.4 billion cricket obsessives, were up against a country whose five million prefer rugby. Yet there were at least five reasons why New Zealand were favourites when, after an opening-day washout, play started on the second morning.
First, preparation: they had just outclassed England in two Tests, while India made do with a low-level intra-squad warm-up containing more hyphens than meaning. Second, familiar conditions: the south coast in a damp June is more Christchurch than Chennai. Then, selection: India ignored the forecast and included two spinners - admittedly, each had at least one Test century - while their opponents opted for a full-out seam attack. If that gave India the semblance of balance, their pace trio would flag under the workload, while New Zealand's quintet stayed fresh. Fourth, a lack of ego. Finally, the toss: both bearded wonders were keen to field under scowling skies, but Williamson called correctly. Could the bowlers make the most of his fortune?
It seemed not. Runs didn't exactly gush - they never did - but the flow was steady. Under lights, Southee and Boult swung the ball, only for their width to diminish the threat. And when Jamieson was cracked to the fence in his first over, India were 41 for none, at four an over.
Gill, with 19 off 24, and Rohit were enjoying themselves, but tighter lines and fuller lengths turned off the tap. The 6ft 8in Jamieson became a towering example of accuracy: of his 46 overs in the match, 22 were maidens, and he conceded four boundaries - all in the first innings. The pressure told. When Rohit drove without conviction at a ball that left him late, the edge was born mainly of frustration. At third slip, Southee made up for an insipid opening spell with a magnificent diving catch that snapped a useful stand of 62. Gill, his progress reduced to a crawl, went for a 64-ball 28, undone by a sumptuous one-two-three in left-armer Wagner's first over. Two balls had swung back in, prompting Gill to assume the next - ostensibly identical - would too. But it held its own, and Watling, in his last Test before retirement, did the rest.
At 63 for two, India needed glue, and who better to provide it than the adhesive Pujara? Trouble was, he had come unstuck in the last couple of years - 28 century-less innings at less than 30 - and these were unstinting bowlers in gnarly conditions. He did hit his 36th and 37th balls for four, but missed his 54th, a nip-backer from Boult, and was lbw for eight: 88 for three.
The rest of the day, ended before five by a third stoppage for bad light, also made unmissable viewing. This was Test cricket red in tooth and claw - a batting great and his high-class deputy scrapping for survival as vultures circled. That Kohli and Rahane reached the close at 146 for three was an achievement: in one over, a rejuvenated Southee beat both twice, and they struggled for a loose ball to punish. India had painstakingly pieced together a potential advantage, but it took three overs next morning for New Zealand to puncture it. Kohli, who battled three and a quarter hours for 44, missed a sizzling Jamieson inducker, and lost a review into the bargain.
The bowlers ratcheted the screws ever tighter: the day had contained four scoring shots in 54 deliveries when an unusually restrained Pant ran out of restraint. Latham clung on, despite a kitchen sink flying nearby. And when Rahane let his monumental concentration lapse, wafting a Wagnerian short ball to square leg, India were 182 for six. Ashwin swatted a few cheerful runs, but the end came in haste: Jamieson, head and shoulders the best of a bellicose bunch, claimed five for 31.
How good was India's 217? Could their bowlers match the New Zealanders' venom? Ishant and Bumrah found more seam movement than swing, yet allowed Latham and Conway to leave with impunity. The disciplined Mohammed Shami did make them play, discomfiting both with pace and bounce, but the breakthrough came an hour or so after tea when Latham misread Ashwin's spin and popped the ball to short extra.
Grind forward another hour, and Conway, the game's first half-centurion, had cause to regret a Pietersenesque flamingo shot that fetched up with mid-on. Moments later, bad light chased the players from the field at 101 for two; the late wicket was reward for Indian perseverance, yet the balance had tilted south.
The less written about Monday, notionally the fourth day, the better. Suffice to say there was more spray (plenty) than play (none). After rain pilfered yet another hour on Tuesday morning, even incurable optimists wondered if either side could engineer a result, the more so once Williamson had taken 51 balls in adding two to his overnight 12. Though some called his approach ponderous, even irresponsible, it was in reality a testament to the precision of the bowling. Yet as maiden begat maiden, they also begat wickets.
Shami, dangerous as ever, and Ishant grabbed four to leave New Zealand 162 for six, shifting more weight on to the captain's shoulders. India, who had made 20 more at the fall of the sixth wicket, failed to cement their position: on a pitch with little for the spinners, their overworked seamers were tiring. Jamieson cracked a handy 21 and, when Williamson - at last nibbling one he might have left - went for 49 from 177 balls, New Zealand noses were in front. Southee confirmed the superiority of their tail with a brisk 30. A lead of 32 was solid gold but, with four sessions left, time was running out for them to cash it in.
Invigorated by his batting, Southee was irresistible. Before the fifth day was out, he had both openers lbw, with Rohit's wicket a minor classic. The swing sequence of away- away-away-away-in out-Wagnered Gill's first-innings in-in-away. At stumps, India had ticked off New Zealand's lead and made it their own; all that was needed now was the sixth-day sun to shine. And, mirabile dictu, it did.
The path to an Indian victory was narrow, convoluted and led through territory marked "Here be dragons". New Zealand's route, though easier to discern, was not without risk. And looming over the drama was an hourglass: 98 overs, and counting.
Kohli was key. He had stoutly come in the night before - no nightwatchman for him - and been clonked on the helmet by Southee. Now he faced the biggest and fiercest of the Antipodean dragons, emanating menace, breathing fire. Our era knows few doughtier knights, but Sir Virat was no match for this foe, his armour scant protection. Leaden of foot, he nicked a Jamieson thunderbolt - and the champion was slain. In his next over, Jamieson despatched Pujara, gobbled up in the slips by Taylor. That left India 72 for four, just 40 to the good, and the match slithering from their grasp.
Pant, though, picked up the gauntlet and, lance in hand, rode his luck after Southee, in a rare false move by the New Zealand cordon, gave him a life. He shrugged off the loss of Rahane and, at 142 for five not long after lunch, India supporters were growing vocal, their team scraping runs to push for victory. It mightn't need many.
Nor would it be. Pant's buccaneering innings ended in a staggering catch by Nicholls, back-pedalling at breakneck speed from gully; as predicted, the tail added little. All three innings had borne the hallmarks (and scars) of aggressive bowling of the highest calibre - the fielding wasn't bad, either - and a Test that had crawled into life on a soggy Saturday, but seemed moribund after a monsoonal Monday, was now whistling towards a vibrant conclusion on a wondrous Wednesday.
New Zealand's target was 139 in 53 overs: not mission impossible, yet trickier than it sounded, with the ball singing from the hand rather than pinging from the bat. And although Ishant and Shami beat the openers umpteen times, it was Ashwin who prised them apart. He lured Latham down the pitch, and deceived him all ends up - Pant removed the bails. Four overs later, Ashwin set hearts thumping by trapping Conway.
As the hourglass emptied, New Zealand contended with world-class spin as well as seam. So far, the match had tiptoed along at less than two and a half an over. Now the required rate touched three. But at the crease were Williamson and Taylor, New Zealand's highest Test run-scorers, and two of their calmest heads. The equation had always favoured them, and inexorably they pulled away. Kohli could not reconcile the opposing imperatives of wicket-taking and run-saving and, when at 84 for two Taylor was dropped at first slip off the ill-fated Bumrah, few doubted Pujara had also dropped the mace.
The steadfast Williamson became only the second in the match to make a fifty, as boundaries, once rare as hen's teeth, grew commonplace in the evening sun, removing time - then India - from the reckoning. In the ultimate hour of the ultimate day of "The Ultimate Test" (© ICC), there was another grassed catch but, more importantly, the clipped four from Taylor that atoned for a different final, played at Lord's two years earlier. Then, New Zealand had been the unluckiest team in cricket. Now, they topped the world.
Player of the Match: K. A. Jamieson. Attendance: 12,622. Close of play: first day, no play; second day, India 146-3 (Kohli 44, Rahane 29); third day, New Zealand 101-2 (Williamson 12, Taylor 0); fourth day, no play; fifth day, India 64-2 (Pujara 12, Kohli 8).