Matches (12)
BAN v SL (1)
PSL 2024 (2)
WPL (2)
Ranji Trophy (2)
Sheffield Shield (3)
WCL 2 (1)
Nepal Tri-Nation (1)

Does Ashwin hold the key to the World Test Championship final?

If it stays dry in Southampton and spins a bit, as pitches there are inclined to do, might it be India's game?

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Williamson vs Kohli: the batting contest we're all looking forward to  •  Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press

Williamson vs Kohli: the batting contest we're all looking forward to  •  Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press

Cricket's long history tells us that if you mess with the game, it will kick you in the guts. England's selection at Edgbaston - based on the deeply flawed policy of rest and rotation - brought wrath from the gods, along with general derision from supporters and delight from the New Zealand players, who, pretty much to a man, picked off their opposite numbers with indecent ease. India's observation that New Zealand will begin the World Test Championship final on Friday with the advantage of two warm-up matches was given further credence by England's feeble resistance. Nothing beats the unscathed thumping of one opponent before a big fight with another, and thus, Williamson's men will arrive at the Ageas Bowl fresh from the near three-day finish and brimful of confidence.
For reference in this time of need, England need look no further than to New Zealand's cricketers, who keep the game simple by adopting the basic fundamentals of technique and commitment. To a man, they apply themselves with intelligence and with whatever discipline is required; they play and behave to the best examples of the game's spirit and let their results do the only shouting from rooftops. It is hard to argue the point that this New Zealand team is the best one from that country. The fascination will be to watch Williamson and Co in action against India to see if they can prove themselves to be the best in the world right now.
We will come to that question in a moment. Meantime, let's linger briefly with England. Few cricketers have been blessed with the national goodwill that Joe Root so enjoys. He is a delightful man and very obviously in love with the game of cricket and its people. His pride in the England captaincy is clear enough and his batting is, usually, a joy. It was a shock, then, when his team's response to Williamson's imaginative declaration at Lord's was nothing short of pusillanimous. Having had the time to think about it more, one can only assume that the faith he claims to have in his batters is not really there. Given how often he is left alone on the bridge, it is hard to blame him. Answering all those questions about the confused techniques and/or mental frailty of the men chosen to sail alongside you must be agony. (Chris Silverwood leant on inexperience as an excuse - really? They're all a whole lot more experienced than Devon Conway.)
Root played an uncharacteristically limited innings on Saturday at Edgbaston, caught as he was between a rock and the hardest place. Of his myriad skills, the one that most shines is the tempo of his innings, the best of which control the game. Here, he was rendered strokeless, a shadow of the man who made double-hundreds in Galle and Chennai earlier this year. The exact and excruciating figures are 11 runs in 61 balls across an hour and 42 minutes. Eventually he cut at one a little close to his body for comfort and edged to the wicketkeeper. The shock of the moment and the pain of inevitable defeat were writ large across his face.
If those above and around the England captain have one job in the coming weeks, it is to clear his diary of the extraneous stuff about which he, understandably, sweats. We didn't need to hear from Root on discrimination - not at length anyway - nor was he required to explain the moral compass with which we all should be finding our way. A line in support of Ollie Robinson would have gone down well, especially as the lad must have been distraught beyond words. Indeed, Robinson's Tiger Woods-like mea culpa at the close of play on the first day at Lord's was a shocker, obviously written for him by someone else and beyond the simple and honest message of contrition he would almost certainly have preferred to convey himself.
My own view is that the ECB had little option but to get him out of the spotlight for a week or two, while planning the programme of education that is so badly needed if the curse of racism in sport is to be properly understood and meaningfully countered. But to see Robinson so humiliated was both unnecessary and unhelpful.
The burden on Root is increasing. If he played a part in the rest and rotation policy, he must now know they got it wrong. Of late, English cricket has been responsible for marginalising the first-class game and paying less attention to Test cricket than it deserves. The county game is squeezed mainly into pockets at the beginning and end of the season, when conditions offer little to prepare players for five days of attrition. This makes no sense. Over time, poor performances by the Test team will exponentially diminish the value of the television rights around which the game revolves. Moreover, it will spoil the viewing experience, for cricket's aesthetic appeal comes from the methods and application that have served it well since 1877, when Charlie Bannerman first flayed the English in Melbourne and the Parsees took on various European teams in Bombay, before Ranjitsinhji put bat to ball a decade or so later.
Indian cricket has long been a thing of great beauty and enthusiasm. It is celebrated on the teeming maidans of the cities and on the fields and pathways of the countryside with games played by children of all ages and grown-ups. Commentaries are made in many languages: Rahul Dravid once said that ten and eleven were together in an Indian team he captained and they could not understand each other at the crease but loved every minute of their short time there. And yes, the tenth wicket fell to a run-out.
It is entirely fitting that India should contest the first World Test Championship final. It is only a pity that they will not do so at home. Instead, the venue is the Ageas Bowl - just 20 minutes outside Southampton - home to Hampshire, a club that includes Malcolm Marshall, Robin Smith and Shane Warne among its alumni. It is a young ground with wonderful facilities, good-size boundaries, and a fair pitch that spins when the weather is dry, as it has been all month. In 2014, Moeen Ali bowled England to victory over India with his offbreaks, so R Ashwin might well enjoy himself come the weekend.
India start as marginal favourites because of the options at their disposal. The batting is long, strong and well balanced in both defence and attack; the bowling is served by speed, steam and spin; the fielding by athleticism and the captain's predatory nature. Their game is played with flair and without favour. It is practical when needs must but more often filled by personality and expression.
The New Zealanders have tremendous spirit and no little skill. It is equally fitting that they are there too. In preparation, they dot i's and cross t's, while impressing with their calm approach to all things and their kindly game face. It is not an exaggeration to say they thoroughly outplayed England in every facet of the game over both recent matches. It is a long time since that happened. More often the Englishman's home has been his castle.
In Virat Kohli, India have a one-off cricketer. The desire to win is worn upon his sleeve in a way that niggles opponents and upsets bystanders. If a little of the charm of the past has gone, in its place is a thrilling expectation. The players who will gather as one on Friday morning are both a testament to Kohli's force of nature and to the BCCI's long-term strategy that has made the IPL the world's most powerful and sought-after cricket product, while ensuring that Test match cricket remains a premier cricket platform.
Right now, India could put two teams on the park and compete favourably; in short-form cricket, maybe three. Each position in the team is covered by another but there are certain names on the team sheet that bring continuity and compatibility to a lively and impassioned dressing room.
Kohli is one of three great modern batters, a title that comes and goes for Joe Root but is in permanent situ for both captains in this match and for Steve Smith. Williamson is the least eye-catching of the three but the most efficient. His simple movements and straight bat are a lesson in minimalism, the polar opposite, if you like, to Smith. Kohli's brilliant wristwork and footwork are features, along with a hunger matched by very few. The match-up between Williamson and Kohli is the centrepiece of the occasion.
Nearly five years ago New Zealand were humbled 3-0 in India - R Ashwin, chief humbler. Too long ago to be relevant? Maybe, but six-sevenths of this present New Zealand side were there then. India batted first in all three Tests and Kohli made a double-hundred in the third. Frankly, playing in India is so difficult, especially if you are losing tosses, that any wise tourist would park it behind them as a remarkable experience but not to be dwelt upon, lest insanity takes hold.
Sixteen months ago, in both Wellington and Christchurch, India were given a right shaking by Williamson's happy band. The first Test, which New Zealand won by ten wickets, was their 100th Test win, 33 of which have been achieved with Tim Southee and Trent Boult in harness, as they will surely be on Friday. Then there are Neil Wagner, Matt Henry and Kyle Jamieson. Against them are Jasprit Bumrah and any of Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Takur and Umesh Yadav. Two fine fast attacks in an age of impressive fast bowling.
If the weather holds, it will, I think, be an advantage to bat first. Ageas pitches are generally pretty good. It would make for exhilarating cricket if this one had some pace, but for that, live grass must be poking its head just a tad above the surface. Given the tendency for the Test match pitches there to spin, however, maybe it is Ashwin who has the key to this game in his pocket; or the charismatic left-arm spinning allrounder Ravindra Jadeja.
What we do know is that New Zealand have a great chance on neutral ground. Cast your mind back to July 14th, 2019 at Lord's and the shoddy treatment of New Zealand's cricketers by the gods of the World Cup final. If the same gods are on duty at the Ageas Bowl, one cannot imagine them being so unkind again.
Were New Zealand to get up, Williamson might think of dedicating the win to Martin Crowe, whose love of Test cricket and the techniques that make a Test match man, came from deep within his soul. Martin first hammered away about the need for a Test match championship 25 years ago when we were plotting for Cricket Max, his short-form brainchild. How he would love to be on the south coast of England this Friday morning.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator