Virat Kohli’s India or Kane Williamson’s New Zealand, or maybe both, will join Clive Lloyd’s West Indies and MS Dhoni’s India in an elite list of international cricket teams to have played the game over the past 177 years.
Come June 18, Test cricket will get its first-ever champion – hopefully over five days – at Southampton’s The Ageas Bowl, just like One Day Internationals (ODIs) and Twenty20 Internationals (T20Is) got theirs at Lord’s in 1975 and Johannesburg in 2007.
While Lloyd’s West Indies were a force to reckon with in the first two ODI World Cups (1975, 1979), Dhoni’s Indian team, a group of young players with little international experience, was a surprise package at the inaugural World T20 in 2007.
This time, though, it’s different. It’s a battle of equals.
While New Zealand have a slight advantage, having got acclimatised to the English conditions during their 1-0 victory in the two-Test series against the hosts, India have arrived on the back of comprehensive wins in Australia and against England at home.
India and New Zealand have played 59 Tests against one another, with the former winning 21, latter 12 and 26 matches ending without a result. Williamson’s team beat the Indians 2-0 in the most recent two-match series at home in February 2020.
This, however, is the first time the teams are playing each other in a Test at a neutral venue, and that’s what makes the battle even more interesting.
New Zealand have never played at The Ageas Bowl, and India don’t have happy memories of Southampton, having lost both Tests they have been part of at the ground. The strip is expected to be pacier with bounce and swing – a typical English pitch, unlike the ones in India, but similar to those in New Zealand.
India’s batting lineup will be tested against the likes of pacers Trent Boult, Neil Wagner, Kylie Jamieson, Tim Southee, and Matt Henry. Openers Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill will have to be watchful, but must also set the tone for Pujara to grind, Kohli and Rahane to flourish and Pant to counterattack. It’s a template India has successfully adapted during their recent Test wins.
The focus, however, will be on India’s famed fast bowling attack – a phrase one could have never imagined to be synonymous with Indian cricket. While India has produced world-class pacers like Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath, and Zaheer Khan in the past, none played together over a long period of time. Srinath took over from Dev as the spearhead and then handed over the baton to Khan.
India now has Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj – worthy successors to the fearsome West Indian pace-quartet of the 1970s – ensuring that the opposition batsmen have no respite. While Sharma, the most experienced and presumably the spearhead of the attack, wears batsmen down with his accuracy, Shami knocks them over with his swing and pace, and Bumrah foxes them with his guile. If batsmen manage the survive the trio, young Siraj pushes them on the back foot with his quick bouncers and then traps them in front of the stumps with his inswingers.
While only three of the four may eventually end up playing at Southampton – with Siraj most likely to sit out – India will have the spin duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja to keep the likes of Williamson, Ross Taylor and Tom Latham in check. Ashwin and Jadeja, both handy lower middle-order batsmen, have been instrumental at various stages in India’s success over the past few series with their all-round abilities.
The road to success at The Ageas Bowl could lie more with the bowlers than the batsmen, with cloudy skies and intermittent showers expected in Southampton over the weekend. It may well turn out to be a low-scoring match, but it will definitely be high on intensity.
And, at the end of it all, the oldest form of cricket will finally get a new champion or champions. Over to the toss at Southampton…