World Test Championship: Fillip to a quaint game

A start has been made, two deserving teams made it to the peak, and when it all ended, Williamson and Kohli showed that essentially it is a sport, and kindness can always surface once the dust settles.

Williamson and Kohli are men of stature, batsmen lathered in greatness and leaders guiding New Zealand and India respectively.   -  AFP

Two men lapsed into a hug with the victor and vanquished sharing a moment of warmth while the World Test Championship (WTC) drew to a close at sun-dappled Southampton after days of damp weather and staggered cricket.

Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli have come a long way since their under-19 days when they crossed paths with clean-shaven faces, adolescent verve and prodigal talent. Now with their beards, Williamson and Kohli are men of stature, batsmen lathered in greatness and leaders guiding New Zealand and India respectively. Williamson is classic ice to Kohli’s searing fire and they share a bridge built on mutual respect.

Finally, when on a June Wednesday, New Zealand won by eight wickets in a Test summit that went the full distance including the reserve sixth day at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl, Williamson and his veteran colleague Ross Taylor were at hand to get past 139. It was a meagre second innings target that India set after struggling to counter the swing of the Black Caps. When Taylor clipped the winning runs, allowing himself a rare moment of freedom, it also bought closure to the inaugural WTC cycle set in motion from 2019 as the International Cricket Council (ICC) sought a fresh path to infuse meaning, context and texture into the five-day format.

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Tests were seen as the struggling patriarch caught up in a crumbling mansion held together by old-world romance while younger siblings like One Day Internationals and Twenty20s drew in fans and sponsors. Most players including Kohli swore by Tests but in these days of Twitter-brevity and tiny pen-drives, a five-day joust that could even end in a stalemate called the draw, seemed an anachronism for teeny boppers and marketing whiz-kids obsessed with instant results.

Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor guided New Zealand to a historic win in the WTC Final against India.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

The WTC was the ICC’s way of giving a rooftop to holler about Test cricket’s enduring greatness and also a manoeuvre to counter limited-overs cricket with their share of World Cups. Previously there were Test rankings, which still exists as some kind of barometer, but to weave a WTC into it, lend most series a far-reaching consequence where the top two battle it out in a final tilt, was a move that can energise Tests that have a legacy harking back to 1877.

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Cut to the inaugural final, New Zealand had a minor edge as the outfit had already played two Tests in England and humbled the host. To further strengthen the winner’s cause, the surface conditions and weather patterns - the kind that makes you yearn for thermals - were obviously up New Zealand’s street. While the clouds hung low and moisturised the air, Williamson won the toss and promptly elected to field.

From that tipping point and through a Test with its rain-breaks, India was playing catch up and its scores of 217 and 170 couldn’t fully test the rival’s mettle while Williamson held firm in both hits (49 and 52 n.o.). In a five-member pace attack headlined by Tim Southee and Trent Boult, the feisty Neil Wagner and the tall ‘man of the match’ Kyle Jamieson also delivered as New Zealand maintained a stifling grip on India even if Kohli and Rohit Sharma had their moments. Mohammed Shami’s spells in the first innings and R. Ashwin’s two wickets in the second dig were the other brownie points for India in an otherwise skewed contest.

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It was a loss at the most inopportune time but India had done remarkably well to get to the last post even if they ran into an opposition high on grace and yet fiercely combative in an understated way. Various threads hung around the clash. India’s last high-voltage face-off against New Zealand at the Old Blighty came in the 2019 World Cup semifinal at Manchester, a game that Kohli’s men lost despite the last-ditch effort from M.S. Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja. Truly in ICC events of a recent vintage New Zealand had the wood on India.

The other angle was also about New Zealand’s diffidence at the concluding step across years. Doing all the hard work and innovation to stun fancied opposition and yet coming a cropper in the knock-outs seemed New Zealand’s manner before it also started suffering heart-breaks in high-voltage finals with the 2019 World Cup final at Lord’s being a case in point. Williamson had to exorcise those old ghosts and he did that while India paid the price. Not only did his men prove that the sum is always bigger than the parts, but they also showed that the hesitancy in finals was no longer an albatross around their necks.

Kyle Jamieson was the Player of the Match in the WTC final against India.   -  AFP

 

Both New Zealand and India can draw cheer in the way in which their path towards greatness was charted. India hoodwinked Australia during a tour when most of its stars got injured and a second-string packed a punch for the Aussies. New Zealand too kept churning triumphs, be it at home against India or away in England and maintained an efficient template of doughty batsmen and incisive seamers.

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Williamson might nonchalantly say ‘it is what it is’ but his pragmatism seeped into his men, who whole-heartedly dealt with the game on the field and almost turned invisible once stumps were drawn. In a cricketing culture enriched by the tales of Richard Hadlee, the late Martin Crowe, Stephen Fleming, Daniel Vettori and Brendon McCullum, to name a few, New Zealand has consistently found its polite heroes who have now finally turned world-beaters but with their smiles intact.

Australia, England and South Africa besides Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the West Indies failed to reveal the consistency that was the hallmark of the two finalists over the last two years. And none would grudge New Zealand and India their final stab at glory. Kohli has mooted the idea of a three-match final Test series just to give both squads a fair chance. Considering the frenetic nature of cricketing schedules, the ICC may struggle to shoe-horn a three-Test epic.

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Until now national squads had a four-year cycle in sync with the ODI World Cup. But with the WTC in vogue, the men in white may also get their fair share of acclaim. A Cheteshwar Pujara, deemed as a pure Test player, now gets a bigger platform within his comfort zone. Tests, despite their five-day structure, need current nourishment as nostalgia will not essentially support its feet. Seen in that context, the WTC should give a fillip to a quaint game with its session-by-session progress and its breaks for lunch and tea.

A start has been made, two deserving teams made it to the peak and when it all ended, Williamson and Kohli showed that essentially it is a sport and kindness can always surface once the dust settles.

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