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Dig deep, get down and dirty - no one does it better than New Zealand

Delayed gratification comes to those who push on through the suffering - just look at Williamson's men

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
It takes something extreme for BJ Watling to display any anguish on a cricket field, so when, in the crunchy closing stages of a gripping morning session, he stuck out a hand to gather a wayward shy from Kane Williamson and immediately ripped off his gauntlet in a state of mild panic, the omens were instantly grim. Sure enough, the physio, Tommy Simsek, rushed out to manipulate Watling's dislocated ring finger back into place - a procedure every bit as wince-inducing as the patient made it look - and though he soldiered on to the interval, it was his deputy Tom Blundell who took his place in the team huddle after lunch.
Watling, however, is not a man you would want to leave behind in the final battle of a campaign. Even before NZC could amend their tweet confirming the extent of his injury, he had rushed back down the pavilion steps, shunted Blundell back to the margins, and reclaimed his place behind the sticks for the final session of his 75-match, 12-and-a-half-year Test career.
Bravery and foolhardiness are basically one and the same. For this was a day for digging deep, something that this magnificent New Zealand team does better than almost any outfit in the world. One final busting of the gut, an exhortation to cast aside the fripperies of physical injury, and tap instead into the emotional hurt that New Zealand have known only too personally in their last two ICC global finals.
Watling was not a part of those dressing-rooms in Melbourne in 2015 or Lord's four years later. But then nor was Neil Wagner, another man who knows only too well that pain is transient but glory eternal. Against Pakistan in Mount Maunganui in December, Wagner had his boot crushed by a Shaheen Shah Afridi yorker but bowled on through the pain, claiming two wickets in each innings in a bid to stave off a rare defeat.
And so it was fitting that such a doughty pair would combine - for one final time in Watling's immense career - to deliver the breakthrough that truly set New Zealand on their way to glory. In ordinary circumstances, the presence of Ravindra Jadeja at No. 7 might have seemed a place too high; in extraordinary circumstances, such as those that transpired on this pulsating final day - and indeed, in the two sides' last ICC meeting, at Old Trafford in the World Cup semi-final - he was exactly the sort of brawler to meet the needs of India's hour.
And that hour after lunch was Test cricket at its zenith. A wounded India team, rightly recognising the dangers of becoming becalmed in the third innings - a lesson that England's final-day defeat in Adelaide 15 years ago has etched into the sport's lore, exactly as India's Kolkata miracle in 2001 changed forever teams' attitudes towards the follow-on. Merely sitting in your foxholes in such circumstances, digging for survival but in truth waiting for the one with your name on it, does a team no favours when the inevitable comes to pass. A counter-attack of some description was mandatory. Scalp a lead, however it may come, and defend it for your life thereafter.
And so it came down to that gritty, grotty hour after lunch, as Wagner rumbled in with his dog-eared, 60-over ball, aided and abetted by the high-kicking immensity of Kyle Jamieson at the other end. The pair of them charged with closing India's routes back to parity while burgling a few breakthroughs to build on New Zealand's three-wicket morning.
The lead was 98, the die was cast, and Watling's fingers were numb as he all but fumbled Jamieson's second ball of the session, a glove-thumping lifter that might have been designed to ask the question: "are you sure you're still up to this?". Wagner, inevitably, made it his business to ask the follow-up questions, thundering through the middle of the pitch as Pant - with perfectly ludicrous logic - reversed his stance and rolled his wrists on a pull through third man, the obvious percentage option with a phalanx of leg-side catchers scattered for the conventional top-edge.
Jadeja's part in their 33-run stand - the second-largest of the innings - was muted by his standards but vital, as he willed himself to withstand Wagner's bombs as New Zealand's requirement was stretched into 110s. But then he was done in by the fractionally fuller length - the short ball that wasn't, after all - and with his weight inevitably deep in his crease, Wagner's exaggerated angle from around the wicket brought the edge into play, and Watling, in the clutch moment, made no error as he nudged ahead of MS Dhoni with his 257th and final Test catch.
Watling had begun his fielding stint with a handshake from Virat Kohli after announcing at the start of the tour that this Test would be his last. Ross Taylor, by contrast, chose to wait until the winning moment, his shovelled flick off the toes for four off Mohammed Shami, before turning to his opponents and accepting the respect that was due to one of the mightiest campaigners of them all.
But you got the sense, as his formless but indomitable quest for victory grew in stature, that Taylor's own announcement wouldn't be so far behind. In a recent interview with the ICC, Taylor admitted that, had the 2019 final not turned out as it did, he might not have had the drive to take his career into this, his 14th year. A farewell on home soil might be tempting, but for New Zealand's greatest Test run-scorer, stages do not get more fitting than this.
At the other end, throughout his unbeaten 96-run stand for the third wicket, Williamson exuded a level of certainty that no other player came close to matching all Test. Calm and calibrated, his astonishment at being given out lbw on 1 was vindicated by DRS on review. And he barely played another false shot until the ball before his fifty, an ugly hoick that just eluded Jasprit Bumrah's fingers at third man.
Taylor, by contrast, brought little but revolting pugnacity to the table, but it was precisely the mettle that the moment needed. Despite an 80 at Edgbaston that was hewn from a similar rock, he has been as bereft of form on this tour as Nasser Hussain in the latter days of his own guts-for-glory Test career, and he's quite possibly bowed out with a similarly iconic boundary too. Batting from muscle memory clearly has its advantages at such high-stakes moments.
Taylor needed 18 balls to get himself off the mark with a crack through backward point, but he wore his indignities and soaked up the blows, none more savage than the length-ball bouncer from Bumrah that spat into his badge as if launched from a fielding trampoline. Taylor grimaced, then grinned, then got straight back to business after the concussion test. Unmoved and immoveable. And ultimately magnificent.
This was a day on which New Zealand weren't afraid to get down and dirty in their final push for the summit. Small moments of heroism echoed through their day. None more crucial than Henry Nicholls' ice-cool running catch at backward point, blocking out the cat-calls of another emotionally invested crowd to see off Pant and unlock India's flimsy lower order. Tom Latham and Devon Conway will not graft many more valuable 33-run stands either, their achievement in reaching tea unscathed was an especially vital statement.
But as Williamson hoisted the World Test Championship trophy on an exquisitely sunlit evening in Southampton, the highs and lows of an extraordinary six-day Test suddenly took on a new, more metaphorical meaning - most especially, the importance of keeping your head through the tough times and savouring the glories when they come. Two years ago, at Lord's, New Zealand's hopes and dreams were cruelly washed out, just as they had been four years before that in Melbourne. Delayed gratification does eventually come to those who push on through the suffering.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket