India face New Zealand in the inaugural ICC World Test Championship final on Friday in a match that could have a profound influence on cricket globally yet, at the moment, the only thing one feels is a profound lack of tension.
To be honest, it doesn’t feel like the final of a World Championship is about to begin. It doesn’t even feel like the start of a big series. There is no history to fall back on and a tournament that was envisaged to give context to Test cricket seems to be lacking some context of its own before the final.
In the press conference on the eve of the match, India skipper Virat Kohli played it down as ‘just another match’ but one certainly couldn’t imagine him saying that before the ODI World Cup final or T20 World Cup final. A win in the latter matches would make up their legacies but what will this do?
For the moment, we are unsure. Will the ICC continue to persist with the tournament? Will teams plan for it? Will teams yearn for it? Perhaps those answers will be sought and found in the coming years or perhaps, the tournament, itself, will quietly fade away.
The direction, though, could depend on the winner. If New Zealand win, it will be a feather in their cap and nothing more. But if India win, it could have a transformational effect on the game.
India’s triumph at the 1983 World Cup changed their attitude to One-Day Internationals, with those matches becoming the financial motor both of its own cricket and the world game
And the T20 revolution that led to the lucrative Indian Premier League, was ushered in by India’s victory over arch-rivals Pakistan in the inaugural 2007 World Twenty20 in South Africa.
The hype and the glory that India’s cricket-mad fan base will generate could push Test cricket forward and that would make everyone happy.
First suggested in 2008, the Test Championship concept almost foundered because of broadcasters’ concerns that India, cricket’s economic powerhouse, would fail to make the final, while many countries were far from enthused by the concept.
But the competition did get going eventually, although not helped by an initially complicated points system designed to reflect the varying numbers of Tests played by different nations, partly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Cricket chiefs settled on a method of percentage of points won rather than total points.
New Zealand are battle-hardened thanks to a 1-0 series win against England completed on Sunday with a dominant eight-wicket win at Edgbaston after a draw at Lord’s.
“Ideal preparation, having two Test matches against England in these conditions,” said experienced New Zealand batsman Ross Taylor ahead of the five-day match in Southampton, on England’s south coast.
“Couldn’t think of anything better.”
The Blackcaps, who won in Birmingham despite making six changes, are set to welcome back captain and star batsman Kane Williamson and pace spearhead Tim Southee.
Many cricket fans around the world would be happy to see New Zealand, a country with a population of around five million, compared with India’s 1.3 billion, win a major global title after their agonising Super Over loss to England in the 2019 50-over World Cup final at Lord’s.
There is also widespread admiration for the way a well-balanced side has made the most of slender resources.
India, on the other hand, have not played a competitive game since the end of March and have had to make do with an intra-squad practice match while undergoing quarantine.
But they proved their strength in depth when an injury-hit side recovered from the humiliation of being dismissed for 36 in the first Test in Australia to win a four-match series 2-1 with a sensational chase in Brisbane in January – and that without inspirational captain Virat Kohli.
The gifted batsman is now back in charge of a side that also features Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane as well as spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, with a pace attack led by Jasprit Bumrah.
“India’s batting depth is the envy of the cricketing world,” said India great Sunil Gavaskar, one of cricket’s most outstanding opening batsmen, in the lead-up to the final.
And he isn’t wrong. But this is also a batting line-up that has failed to fire in England for the best part of a decade now. The challenges are there and perhaps they are obvious too.
But as with all matches, the key to success will be the mental approach. It is a shoot-off of sorts. One match to win it all. One wrong step and you could lose. One poor innings and the chance at glory will be lost. But both Williamson and Kohli realise that this one match won’t define their teams. Rather what defines them is the hard work they put in to get to this point. So they won’t let fear lead them by the nose.
“I think what is important in this Test match is playing with freedom, playing fearless cricket as a team and backing each other. That will really help us rather than thinking about the result,” said India vice-captain Rahane ahead of the game.
And he has a point there. Rather than worry about the result, the ICC and all those watching would like nothing more than to see these two teams duke it out in the middle with no other care in the world. The final should rightly be the showcase for a format that thrills like no other.
(With inputs from AFP)
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