Cricket, like an elderly relative, prefers to take its time. Dopo inventing the Test match in 1877, it needed 94 years to come up with the one-day international. Adesso, un altro 50 anni dopo, we finally have a World Test Championship. Naturally this entailed a qualifying process that was too fiddly for a mere fan to fathom. It ran for only two years, one of them ravaged by Covid, yet somehow it has produced the right finalists. Australia and England, Test cricket’s founding members, missed out, finishing third and fourth in the race. The runaway leaders were India, who won 12 Tests in the qualifying period and lost only four. The runners-up were New Zealand, who won eight and lost four – the same as Australia, but the Kiwis prevailed by the barest of margins™.
New Zealand are not often underdogs any more, but they will be here. Their population is 4.9m, whereas India’s is 1.4bn. So the Indian selectors have 278 times as many people to choose from as their NZ counterparts. In a more sombre league table – for coronavirus cases – the contrast is just as sharp, with India now second only to the United States, and New Zealand an enviable 180th.
The match is a five-day Test, starting on Friday 18 giugno, with the option of a sixth to make up time lost to bad weather. The ball will be the Dukes, the bowlers’ best friend. The prize money is $1.6m (£1.13m) and there’s a mace to be held aloft by the winning captain, but the real prize on offer is glory.
The final was going to be at Lord’s, but then Covid came along, so cricket’s leaving home. The venue is the Ageas Bowl in Southampton, which has a hotel on site. It has hosted six Tests in 10 anni, two of them won by England, one by West Indies, the other three drawn, including the last two (both last summer, in England’s series against Pakistan). The average score per wicket is 33.58, which makes for good viewing. New Zealand have not played a Test at the Ageas before. India have, nel 2018, and they lost – defeated by Moeen Ali’s mercurial offspin and Sam Curran’s breezy batting.
The British weather is doing its best to be even-handed. After the mini-heatwave, the pitch will be dry, so the Indian spinners will be licking their lips. But the air is due to turn cool and damp, which will make the Kiwis very much at home.
New Zealand used a two-Test series against England as a warm-up, rotating liberally, and still emerged as clear winners. India preferred to hold an intra-squad game in a move that smacked of arrogance, though it paid off for their young guns. Shubman Gill made 85 spento 135 balls, e Rishabh Pant raced to 121 off only 94. His ability to dominate could make all the difference.
Both teams are solid and led by an all-time great. Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli are both in their prime: in Tests over the past five years, they have averaged 60 e 59 rispettivamente. But both have laboured in England, and only Kohli has conquered those demons. After flopping on his first tour in 2014, he was masterly in 2018, making two hundreds in a low-scoring series.
Both teams are exceptional. India have an entire attack in the top 20 of the Test rankings: Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami to bring the pace and swing, Ravichandra Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja to supply the turn and guile. Ashwin has played 46 Tests in the past five years, the same number as Jimmy Anderson. The difference is that Ashwin has taken far more wickets (233 to Anderson’s 163). Nuova Zelanda, pure, have a rich seam of seamers: Tim Southee is No 2 in the world, Neil Wagner No 4, Trent Boult No 13, Kyle Jamieson No 20. Their left-arm spinner, Ajaz Patel, may be the only journeyman in the village.
New Zealand have the world’s best slip-catching cordon. Their excellence even extends to Kane Williamson’s dog. India used to take little interest in fielding, but the IPL has fixed that – along with Kohli’s facial expressions, which tend to come down hard on any fumble.
New Zealand keep calm and play old-school Test cricket: they’re the kind of team Chris Silverwood wants England to be, all observing the eternal verities, building an innings, bowling line and length (apart from Wagner, who loves to deliver chin music). India are more exciting, more individual, more flamboyant and less dependable. If the game was all about talent, they would win hands down. Because it is also about temperament and teamwork, New Zealand have a chance.