The Indian cricket team will play New Zealand in the World Test Championship final. (REUTERS)
The Indian cricket team will play New Zealand in the World Test Championship final. (REUTERS)

A point to prove for India in the WTC final

Victory over New Zealand in the WTC final, starting June 18, will give Virat Kohli’s team fresh boost as a great touring team as well
By N Ananthanarayanan, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUN 14, 2021 04:47 PM IST

When cricket’s world governing body first set out to officially decide the best team there was, it effectively only had to find the support cast. It was 1975 and West Indies were a cut above all others. That turned the inaugural ODI World Cup into a search for the best among the rest.

How the Caribbean greats retained the one-day World Cup four years later and underdogs India then toppled them in 1983—all battles settled at Lord’s—is part of cricket’s folklore.

Though a one-off Asian Test championship was held in 1999, the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) plan to infuse context into Test cricket will finally produce its first “champion” later this month. Can India claim a similar dominance heading into the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) final against New Zealand?

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The two teams will face off at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton from June 18, after a less-than-ideal qualification cycle, but few would question Virat Kohli’s team in the summit clash.

The India skipper has said the final is only part of India’s quest for sustained excellence rather than an all-or-nothing game. Coach Ravi Shastri feels a best-of-three final in neutral territory would have helped provide a fairer assessment.

Both have a point. ICC could not ensure all major teams played each other in the two-year cycle that led to the WTC final and the pandemic was a major disruption for bilateral tours.

In November 2020, the ICC Cricket Committee, led by Kumble, announced an altered points system for teams to qualify for the WTC final due to the toll the pandemic took on the calendar. The Indian team management wasn’t happy when the tweak pushed it to second in the table. Until then, matches not completed were treated as draws and the points split. The new rule only took into account completed matches with teams ranked on the basis of percentage of points earned.

In February, there were in fact four teams still in contention for the final—Australia, England, India and New Zealand. Then Australia cancelled their tour of South Africa because of Covid-19, and were left hoping Ashes rivals England would do them a favour by toppling India at home. England lost 1-3.

A 3-0 win in South Africa would have confirmed Australia’s WTC final berth, but India have proved clearly superior to the once No.1 team. They have beaten them 2-1 in successive (2018-19 and 2020-21) series Down Under; both series provided for some of the most memorable cricket—with both bat and ball—India has ever played.

India have held the upper hand against South Africa overall in the last decade. The Proteas last won a Test in India in 2010, in a drawn series. Since then, India have nine wins, four losses and three draws, including a win each on the last two tours (1-1 in 2010-11, 1-2 in 2018). At home, they won the 2015 series 3-0 on rank turners while the 3-0 home series win in late 2019 on good pitches was a statement of their rise.

Fast bowling is South Africa’s big strength, but India have become lethal in that department, led by Jasprit Bumrah since he made a wonderful debut on the 2018 South Africa tour.

India and Pakistan have not played a Test against each other since 2007 due to political tensions, but again, with India’s pace attack now among the best in the world, it’s not hard to imagine that India would have held the edge if the two teams had met.

Against England, India lost a touring series 4-1 in 2018, but avenged that with an emphatic 3-1 series win earlier this year at home.

Bragging rights

Three years ago, Shastri came under fire for proclaiming, while India were losing the Test series in England 1-4, that it was the best team to leave the shores of India.

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Controversy over Shastri talking up India in 2018 and a third straight series loss in England saw ex-greats, including Sunil Gavaskar, question that claim, especially as India had come off a defeat in South Africa.

For Shastri and Kohli, victory will help settle the three-year debate. But in Southampton, they face a team that they have not beaten in the last three years. Since 2018, India have played New Zealand in just one series, a 2-0 loss in New Zealand in early 2020 where Kohli’s batsmen could not tackle the moving ball.

Kohli argues it is not fair comparison as teams seldom win in India. Southampton is neutral territory, but the Indian camp knows a wet English summer will give New Zealand conditions like home.

A win in the final will recast the argument and Kohli’s view of victory-as-a-process would get a ringing endorsement if India beat England in the five-Test series that follows. It will also help end a 14-year wait as India’s last win came under Dravid in 2007.

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