WTC final preview: Kohli's well-balanced India takes on Williamson's spirited New Zealand

With the top two sides in the world about to cross swords, it’s time to savour Test cricket once again as it reclaims centre stage.

Virat Kohli, the Indian skipper, shouldn’t have any problem in choosing the fast bowlers; the pace attack picks itself with Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma hoping to make the most of the usually bowler-friendly conditions of England.   -  AP

The 2019-21 World Test Championship (WTC) will reach its climax on June 18, when India takes on New Zealand in the final at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. It was hoped the two-year league cycle would add greater context to the longest format, but its inaugural edition has been thrown in disarray by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the original schedule, the top nine teams — not Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan — would have each played a total of six bilateral series, three at home and three overseas. There was a maximum of 720 points at stake. However, in the wake of tours being cancelled or postponed, the points system was switched to win percentage, with Australia initially taking India’s place at the top.

But Virat Kohli’s men confirmed their spot in the final after comprehensive 2-1 and 3-1 Test series victories over Australia (away) and England (home). On the other hand, New Zealand qualified for the showpiece event after Australia’s three-Test tour of South Africa, scheduled to start in March 2021, was postponed because of ‘unacceptable’ COVID-19 risks.

The International Cricket Council’s (ICC) interim chief executive, Geoff Allardice, has hailed the WTC as a “real step forward” for Test cricket. The winner will get a $1.6 million (£1.1 million) prize, with $800,000 for the runner-up. The money will be split evenly if the match ends in a draw. Meanwhile, the ICC Board has also decided to continue with the format for the WTC, with the final every two years: 2025, 2027, 2029 and 2031.

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While the jury is still out on the question “will the WTC save Test cricket?” one can rest assured that the Indian camp will be aiming to shake off its Indian Premier League (IPL) cobwebs and get into the groove of Test cricket. The fixture itself is quite an enticing prospect: New Zealand, including the world’s No. 1 Test batsman Kane Williamson, takes on an Indian XI largely comprising players who, not so long ago, returned victorious from a gruelling examination in Australia.

If everyone is fit and ready, all members of India’s XI appear to be certainties. Mohammed Shami, Ravindra Jadeja and Hanuma Vihari have returned to the squad of 15 after missing the recent Tests against England because of their respective injuries.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja will spearhead the spin department. The Indian think tank is ready to bank on Jadeja the batsman, too.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

 

Although Axar Patel made heads turn on his Test debut in the England series with 27 wickets from three games at home, Jadeja’s comeback means India preferred him over Axar in Southampton.

The pace attack picks itself — save any last-minute injuries — with Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma hoping to make the most of the usually bowler-friendly conditions of England.

Three-man pace attack

On India’s last tour to England in 2018, Kohli consistently favoured a five-bowler strategy. That said, India wouldn’t want to lengthen its tail. Therefore, Jadeja, the left-arm spinner, is an opportune addition if India decides to play three fast bowlers, one spinner and an allrounder. The Test will be played with a Dukes ball, which is used for first-class cricket in England. The Dukes ball has been preferred by bowlers for its rich seam.

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The New Zealand batting will mainly depend on the two stalwarts, skipper Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor.   -  AP

 

The WTC final will be followed by a five-match Test series against England. So, Kohli would not want to risk any of his bowlers becoming fatigued. With workload management in mind, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Siraj, Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur could get a look in during the England Tests. India is carrying 24 players, including a reserves list comprising batsman Abhimanyu Easwaran and three fast bowlers: Prasidh Krishna, Avesh Khan and Arzan Nagwaswalla.

Among the batsmen, India is likely to stick with its new first-choice pair of Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill. In the middle order, Kohli, the all-format accumulator, will once again be in focus. After a harrowing Test tour of England in 2014, where he averaged only 13.4 with a top score of 39, Kohli returned in 2018 and topped the batting chart with 593 runs from five Tests.

After a relatively lacklustre outing against England at home in early 2021, the right-hander would want to lead by example. The stubborn defiance of Cheteshwar Pujara and the implacable soundness of Ajinkya Rahane on either side of Kohli form the backbone of the Indian batting. Rishabh Pant’s aggression and ability to bend the game to his will coupled with an enterprising Jadeja could ensure that the lower order shows a strong spine.

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The vast improvement in Jadeja’s batting was evident during India’s tour Down Under, especially when he scored a crucial half-century at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. He trusts his defence now and doesn’t back away and hit. So, while sending Jadeja in at No. 7 means India would be replacing a batsman with a bowling all-rounder, there are clear indications that the think tank is ready to bank on Jadeja the batsman, too.

Skillful bowling

But India will have a skilled New Zealand bowling attack to contend with. If the ball moves in the air, New Zealand, led by its swing bowlers Trent Boult and Tim Southee, will hold the edge. These two will have the company of the indomitable Neil Wagner, his intensity and challenging lengths proving to be the perfect complement. Adding further heft bowling-wise is the 6’8” Kyle Jamieson, who rattled India on his international debut in February 2020. His aggressive full lengths and knack of generating awkward bounce bring variety.

Ajaz Patel's match haul of 4 for 59 against England at Edgbaston saw him pip Mitchell Santner to the spin-bowling position in New Zealand's final 15-man squad. If New Zealand chooses to play four frontline quicks plus the medium-pace of Colin de Grandhomme, Matt Henry could miss out. If conditions bring spin into play, New Zealand could consider picking three pacers with Patel and de Grandhomme.

If the ball moves in the air, New Zealand, led by its swing bowlers Trent Boult and Tim Southee, will hold the edge.   -  AP

 

Williamson and Ross Taylor will spearhead the batting unit. Williamson, who missed the second Test against England with a troublesome left elbow, is back in the squad. Opener Tom Latham and wicketkeeper B. J. Watling add solidity. The 35-year-old Watling will retire from all cricket at the end of this Test tour of England. He has scored more runs (3,789) than any other New Zealand wicketkeeper at an average of 37.89. His highest score of 205 came against England at Mount Maunganui in November 2019. Devon Conway's emergence in the Test series against England, where he scored 306 runs and won the Player-of-the-Series award, is a huge boost.

New Zealand will come into Friday's contest on the back of a 1-0 Test series win against England, its third Test series win in England and first since 1999. India, on the other hand, has played just two intra-squad practice matches after a long quarantine, which included two weeks in Mumbai before departure and 10 days in Southampton.

The ICC announced the playing conditions for the WTC final in the last week of May. India and New Zealand will be declared joint winners if the final ends in a draw or a tie. There is a reserve day (June 23) that will only come into play if the time lost during the five regular days is not made up on those days.

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Now, India is rightly the No. 1 Test side for its consistent record home and away, and while New Zealand’s ascent to the No. 2 spot may have been off the back of an impressive home record, they would do well to summon the characteristic fighting spirit should self-doubt creep in.

As for the fans, with the top two sides in the world about to cross swords, it’s time to savour Test cricket once again as it reclaims centre stage.

The squads

India: Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Chesteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja, Hanuma Vihari, Umesh Yadav, Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, Wriddhiman Saha.

New Zealand: Kane Williamson (C), Tom Blundell, Trent Boult, Devon Conway, Colin de Grandhomme, Matt Henry, Kyle Jamieson, Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls, Ajaz Patel, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor, Neil Wagner BJ Watling and Will Young.