A battle-royal in skills, fitness, character and temperament
Since the first official ball hit the deck one hundred and forty-four years ago, Test cricket continues to tease and tempt its followers worldwide, despite formidable challenges. The culmination of the historic first World Test Championship (WTC), an inventive measure (one wonders why it took so many generations to arrive), which smacks of “survival mode” is at hand. To rattle New Zealand’s stumps would be ardent Indian hopes in the tournament-decider, come 18th June at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton.
India have already named their squad inclusive of the subsequent five-Test series against England. Hardik Pandya and Kuldeep Yadav are notable absentees in the main squad of 20 players, while KL Rahul and Wriddhiman Saha – are subject to “fitness clearance”. Rahul went under the knife for appendicitis in early May, while Saha tested positive for Covid-19 on 4th May. Mohammed Shami, Ravindra Jadeja and Hanuma Vihari have returned since missing the recent home Tests against England due to injuries.
Pandya and Kuldeep aren’t among the four standby players either. Pandya did have a question mark over him since he has not bowled regularly for some time now. Kuldeep could have been left out because the two spinners picked ahead of him – Axar Patel and Washington Sundar – provide better batting options and shorten India’s tail. Patel pronounced his Test debut against England with a haul of 27 wickets from three games, though India’s affinity is towards one or both of R Ashwin and Jadeja, depending on match conditions.
India have comfortable opening options in Mayank Agarwal and KL Rahul, who can also double up as middle-order batters should the need arise, apart from the first-choice pair of Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill. As usual, skipper Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane form quite an imposing engine room; followed by the explosive wicket keeper-batsman Rishabh Pant, a match winner all the way.
The selectors’ fast-bowling choices include Shardul Thakur and Umesh Yadav ahead of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, facing injury issues recently; apart from the more recognised Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami Shami and Mohammed Siraj.
Meanwhile, New Zealand will play two Tests against England preceding the WTC final, giving them a tactical edge in acclimatising to conditions. They too have named a 20-man, power-packed squad for the marquee event. Led by performer from the front, Kane Williamson, included also are three uncapped players – Rachin Ravindra, Devon Conway and Jacob Duffy.
Trent Boult leads their pace pack and presents a significant threat. He is well supported by the in-form Neil Wagner and veteran Tim Southee, the impressive newcomer Kyle Jamieson and Matt Henry. Ajaz Patel and Mitchell Santner are the twirlers in the Kiwi camp.
The skipper himself and the evergreen Ross Taylor, BJ Watling, Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls, Tom Blundell, and Daryll Mitchell are a formidable line-up to share the batting responsibilities. In addition, Devon Conway’s fiery exhibition in the recent T20 series against Pakistan have earned him a pathway to a Test debut, while Colin de Grandhomme is ready with a seam bowling all-round option.
Given the skills of their pace attack to exploit the expected midsummer conditions in England, New Zealand possess what it takes to be worthy champions of the longest format. However, at the slowish track in Southampton, if India were to bring their superior spin attack to the fore, they may surprisingly negate overhead conditions and get on-par with the gentlemen from down-under. Even if the conditions are adverse to them, India have players who can adapt quickly. With a good pace and spin attack along with a fantastic batting line-up, India look well set to stake their claim to the inaugural title.
Whichever way it goes, a battle-royal is expected in the ultimate test of skills, fitness, character and temperament.
Written by Ranjan, this article appears in the June 2021 issue of the LIVING magazine.