The road to Southampton and the ride after


Sports Jul 04, 2021

In the aftermath of what I would gladly call a hard fought battle between the two best test sides in the cricketing world in recent years, I don’t believe it is fair to conduct a thorough post-mortem of their performances for one match may decide who holds on to the mace, but doesn’t provide for any sort of judgement beyond the days the game was played on. So instead, it might prove better to talk a little about the story of the championship itself as a whole.

When I first heard about the format of the World Test Championship (WTC), I wasn’t very sure what to make of it. Yes, I’ve always been an admirer of the sport but in recent years, had detached myself from the shorter forms of the game and begun to appreciate why a game played over 5 days was, in the simplest terms, appealing. I certainly did never have the time to watch all of it; much like most in my age group, I was busy being told that the TV wasn’t for me because there were too many subjects and one too many exams for me to clear. But, whenever I had the opportunity, I was hooked onto it.

Yes, the shorter formats have been an absolute belter with superstars of the game like Virat Kohli; who really came into his own in the latter half of the decade and runs flowed from his bat like a river in spate and the game was truly in an orbit of its own. And the resurgence of test cricket in my mind came about as I began to notice a change in the way India played the game (obviously because I was and am a follower of Indian cricket), specifically during the series Down Under against the Aussies in 2014 at Adelaide, when Virat was quoted as saying, “I wasn’t thinking of a draw at any stage”. With respect to test cricket, that is a brave comment to make. Test cricket, would of course, have more than that to offer as I understood fully 6 years later. But that’s for a different paragraph.

Until the WTC came about, bilateral series came and went, and even if they were exciting to watch, you didn’t specifically remember them after too long, barring exceptions. So here was a system where you had points after every game, every series and they were being added up to something much bigger, to be built up in the background for 2 long years (marred and rather eventfully by COVID) and leading up to a week of glory that we witnessed a fortnight ago at Southampton. What did this mean for countries that played the game though, for a generation like our own that’s been fed and driven by the festivals of cricket that the T20 and the one-day format have become?

For the likes of Australia, India, England, New Zealand, maybe Pakistan, yes. These are teams that have traditionally challenged their opponents anywhere in the world. But what beyond them? What were the ramifications of the WTC to nations like my temporarily adopted home country South Africa, Sri Lanka, West Indies or Bangladesh? Kindly do not mistake me for I certainly take each of their names in that tone much to my own dismay, at least based on their record in recent years.

I implied earlier that it was brave to state that a team would go for a result in a test match as long as it was possible. The points system of the WTC was simple; there were 120 of them on offer through each series, split across matches. Imagine India playing 5 tests through an English summer and overcast conditions throughout, against the likes of Anderson, Broad and Co. Also imagine the same team playing against the Sri Lanka of recent times in a series of two test matches in India, on home soil, where they can’t exactly put a foot wrong. I’d like to believe that the ICC took the point out of Virat’s statement in the aftermath of that Adelaide test in 2014, and they might have seemingly taken it to heart. The idea, however exciting, was simply not rational enough to merit the toughness of the game over 5 days of engagement in my mind. Yes, cricket is a game of bat and ball, but there are always external factors at play depending on the format. And based on these rules, given my way, I’d play Sri Lanka or any other team at home in a two match series more often than not, simply as a ploy to reach the final. As a matter of fact, the eventual champion New Zealand played 3 such two-match series, dominant in each one. The Novel Coronavirus of 2019, of course, had other plans.

The world was forced to come to an abrupt standstill. Tours were either put off or cancelled. The ICC then announced that they would decide the finalists on the basis of the percentage of points earned from those they contested for in every game and series henceforth to account for the lost time and games that were never played. India, who were sitting pretty at the top after having successfully dominated the WTC up until then suddenly faced a mountain to climb; another test series Down Under against a full-strength Aussie line-up (if that was ever even an excuse against them) and then some against England at home. In the same vein, New Zealand now had the opportunity to leapfrog into the finals thanks to the remainder of their home season. Here was a team that had come agonisingly close twice in the last 5 years, the second being a particularly difficult experience with all sorts of drama on the day of the final. They made it count.

As I take this further, allow me to pay homage to some of the defining moments that shaped the championship, not just at the top of the table but also elsewhere over the two year period.

One aspect that goes without saying as having been thoroughly entertaining and influential in the cycle gone by was the quality of pace bowling. Teams that did well could often look at their pace bowling attacks as having led the charge. In an earlier article (click here to view Yield), we spoke about the quality of the BlackCaps pace attack, gifted in heaps by the arrival of a giant in Kyle Jamieson, a resurgent Tim Southee, a relentless Neil Wagner and so on. If they were effective in home conditions, they took that a step further in series away from home as well, as one can reference from their performances in England just prior to the finale. We also spoke in great depth about India’s pace battery, whose tenacity was such that for the first time in years, we possessed an attack capable of knocking over 20 wickets irrespective of conditions. Nearly every team that faced them could vouch for the same, or at least the numbers will. Then there was Pat Cummins, a man whose growth is a reflection of his ability to be the most complete fast bowler in recent times. It is therefore to nobody’s surprise that he was the pick of the bowlers for the Aussies throughout the WTC, be it at home or overseas, even to the tune of superceding the likes of Stuart Broad in England in what was an Ashes series for all of time. For the Englishmen, James Anderson, in the company of Stuart Broad, kept breaking one record after the other, aging like fine wine. In my honest opinion, the inaugural WTC cycle was a great exhibition of the highest quality of fast bowling that most would’ve seen in the last two decades or so.

Another aspect about test match cricket that really stood out in this inaugural cycle were the fourth-innings run chases. We first turn our heads to the West Indies tour of Bangladesh in early 2021. Day 5, chasing 395 at Chattogram against Bangladesh’s spinners and they were down at 59/3 with debutants Kyle Mayers and Nkrumah Bonner at the crease. With a depleted squad, a spinning pitch and two batsmen in uncharted territory, on most days, that’s about when you’d turn the TV down and walk away. They stitched a 216-run stand together and Mayers went on to pull the chestnuts out of the fire; he made a double-hundred. West Indies went on to win that test match in the final session, with Mayers aptly scoring the winning runs. It was an innings to beat any that you would have ever seen. How many of us knew of those two?

The most consequential of the fourth-innings run chases were however played at the Gabba in Brisbane, at Headingley, Leeds and then on day 6 of the final at Southampton. I said test cricket taught me much more than just going for a full result, and this series Down Under would be why. After having been wiped out for 36 and the skipper heading home for the birth of his child, it was an excellent effort from India to wrestle back a game at Melbourne. But all through, they remained bruised and battered thanks to an unending number of injuries. The draw at Sydney with Ravichandran Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari providing rearguard action with a back and hamstring injury respectively was a great example of why it was so important to also play for that third result. It may have very well cost Australia their place in the final because they couldn’t clean up the tail, and also gave India the impetus to go for a win at the Gabba. What might’ve also cost Australia dearly was the slow over-rate in Melbourne for which the ICC docked them 4 points from the table. By the time they won at the Gabba, India were mostly playing a reserve squad. Yes, Rishabh Pant was making a name of sorts for himself, but who were the likes of Washington Sundar, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Siraj, Shubman Gill, Natrajan and so on, in the context of international cricket at the highest level? Yes, they’d played IPL and grade cricket, but this was all too good to be happening. India all but sealed their chances of a spot in the final with that chase. As Glenn McGrath rightly said, these people probably do not understand fear.

Another moment that Australian cricket probably rues about even today was day 4 at Headingley. 270-odd for 9, England staring at an Ashes defeat at home. Routed in the first innings for 67 and Hazlewood running in with his tail up; you’d not give England even half a chance. Stokes took what he got. That review that Tim Paine took; I remember watching the highlights and wondering why he even pondered about it. As a direct result of that, when Nathan Lyon eventually caught Stokes in front but wasn’t given, the decision could not be overturned and Stokes being the superstar that he is, set Leeds on fire. Yet another moment in these two years that could’ve put them on a plane to Southampton. Eventually, their tour to South Africa was also cancelled on grounds of COVID protocols, thus sealing their fate. I think it would be fair to say that Australia, making a strong statement amid all the backlash and controversy surrounding Cape Town in 2018, was the most unfortunate side simply on account of all their missed chances.

Then the final at Southampton. Before I say anything further, I must reveal my plans to petition the ICC to never again hold a tournament knockout at the height of the “summer” in England for obvious reasons. Yes, the game was rain-affected, but the reserve day gave fans hope and reason to expect a result. The Kiwi bowlers always kept the team in the game even when the record at Southampton often favoured the team batting first as we’d mentioned in our pre-final article. In all truth, India’s best chances were probably when they seemed to be marginally ahead at the end of the first day of play (technically day 2), but they had to capitalize on that which they never really did. They may have had a chance of drawing the game on day 6, which also never came to be. In the spotlight on both these occasions was a man who was 6 or 7 tests old at the time, Kyle Jamieson. At the end of the day, he might have looked at himself in the mirror and said “I belong here and I have a long, long way to go”. He never allowed anyone to get the better of him, and he got the better of his franchise and Indian skipper Virat Kohli. What must also be praised is Kane Williamson’s patience to wear out a world-class attack that was spewing venom and building pressure from both ends. I think I’d concur with anyone that says that should there have been any more time in the game, India’s spinners would’ve run riot. But all that in an alternate reality.

Going back to an earlier question and on a concluding note, what does the WTC mean now to countries beyond the four that have effectively dominated the inaugural cycle? Are they interested? It is afterall, an ICC title that’s up for grabs and if they aren’t, then some very strong questions will arise against them. Will we see a resurgence of the likes of Pakistan and South Africa as an even more potent force in the forthcoming cycles? Will Bangladesh pull a Leicester City on what seemingly looks like a club of four at the top? What then of up and coming teams like Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Ireland and the associate member nations? One thing is clear, we can’t be disrupted by a five-match series here and then a two-match series elsewhere; it simply isn’t a level playing field. How the ICC goes about fixing this, I wouldn’t want to venture a guess about at this stage. What is also true is that cricket is as much a woman's game as it is a man’s. I would like to believe that somewhere in the near future, there will be greater emphasis on test matches for women and potentially a championship of the same sort for them as well. The WTC has however, served its current purpose of putting the spotlight on test match cricket once again and one only hopes that when the world does return to some semblance of normalcy in the future, so will the game of cricket.

N Krishna

You may know me as the guy who talks and writes like a sergeant, is an av-geek and works out obsessively, but not as one who laughs with a full heart and cooks like it’s an experiment.

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