India and New Zealand take each other on for the rights to take home the Test mace
It isn’t wrong to say India’s presence in the final has helped give it a context. Indians are the biggest consumers of cricket and an Indian win at Southampton will ensure Test cricket remains headline news for the next few weeks. Images from Southampton will be beamed on television and shared on social media for days giving long form cricket a meaning that it has been lacking in the past.
With IPL and white-ball cricket, the thrust has been on fast-paced action. A boundary or a six is considered integral to making the game attractive and maiden overs are an anathema for the broadcaster. Test cricket is boring is the common refrain. All that is likely to change at the Ageas bowl.
A tight spell from Ravichandran Ashwin holding one end up while Jasprit Bumrah or Mohammed Shami wreak havoc from the other end will be riveting action that people will not forget in a hurry. Every ball that misses the edge will be consumed by Indian fans and when it finally takes the edge of a New Zealand batsman, the nation will erupt as a collective.
It was India’s victory in the World T20 in 2007 that in a way made the IPL possible. It resulted in an explosion of the game’s shortest format with advertisers and sponsors queueing up to reach out to a billion-plus eyeballs. Test cricket, on the other hand, was always this relic meant only for the purist. It was like classical music, which most believed did not have popular appeal. This stereotyping is likely to change in the next one week.
Coming to the game itself, it is a great platform for Virat Kohli and his teammates to label themselves the best Indian team ever. India may not have won a series in England under Virat but to beat Australia in Australia in 2018 and 2020 (under Ajinkya Rahane) and be competitive in South Africa isn’t a mean achievement.
They have the most versatile attack India has ever had with Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja every bit as effective as the fast bowlers. With two quality spinners who can bat, India has a balance that teams of the past have lacked. And the fast bowling department is easily the best and most balanced. Bumrah, Shami, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Siraj have all the skills required to get 20 wickets each time they play together. Swing, seam, pace, they have it all.
The key question is can India’s batting hold up against a New Zealand bowling attack led by Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Kyle Jamieson? Can Virat and his mates shed the tag of inconsistency and rise to the challenge in Southampton?
Bat well and bat big is the mantra and if India does so in the first innings, there is every reason to believe they have a real chance to win the contest. With two Test matches under their belt and a series win against England, New Zealand does have the momentum. They have bowlers and batsmen in form. But in a high stakes match as this one, it all changes when players step out to the middle. Thereafter, nothing else matters. All that it boils down to is who handles pressure better and who makes the most of the conditions on offer. With weather around, there is a chance of rain on all days, off-the-field planning will be as important as on-field strategising.
As Novak Djokovic has conclusively demonstrated in Paris, it is extreme physicality coupled with mental toughness that helps to win at the biggest stage. Virat has been advocating the same for years now. It is time for him and his men to put it into action.
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