The inaugural World Test Championship was imposed on an unequal calendar and was beset by Covid scheduling headaches, but there’s no doubt that we’ve arrived at the world’s two best teams contesting the final.
And there’s a very good case that we’ll have the best ever Indian and New Zealand Test squads on show at Southampton. They’ve turned already good home records ridiculous, become competitive on the road, and have enviable bowling depth.
India have, as has become a slightly baffling tradition, confirmed their XI the day before the game, and it includes neither Mohammed Siraj nor Umesh Yadav, with Axar Patel not even making the XV. As for New Zealand, at most two and possibly only one of Matt Henry, Kyle Jamieson and Neil Wagner will play – the days of Hadlee and the Ilford seconds are long gone. And it is fitting that, barring someone tripping on a boundary rope or wearing insufficiently adhesive socks in the dressing room, we can name with near-certainty 20 of the 22 who’ll take the field on day one, whenever that may turn out to be if the gloomy weather predictions prove correct.
INDIA CONFIRMED XI
Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami
It may seem counter-intuitive that a team would play two spinners in England in June with rain expected. But India will not have forgotten Moeen Ali taking eight wickets in the match at Southampton in 2014 and nine in 2018. And in any case, two spinners is a limiting way of looking at Jadeja and Ashwin.
With Hardik Pandya not making the tour, Hanuma Vihari yet to go beyond gritty supporting roles, and none of India’s best seamers of much use with the bat, India need a No 7, and Jadeja is it. He has become a true all-rounder, averaging 50 with the bat and 25 with the ball since the start of 2017, and it is worth noting that he is no less effective to left-handers (bowling average 25) than right-handers (bowling average 24). And with his clean hitting, good luck bowling to him and the phenomenal Pant if India are well-set.
Ashwin has rediscovered his batting mojo, and with the ball is as lethal as ever in helpful conditions and tortures left-handers, while becoming ever more effective away from home. Since the start of 2018, he has played in South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia, taking 39 wickets in 11 Tests at an average of 30 and an economy rate of 2.50.
Decent figures in isolation, and excellent when we see that the mean for all other spinners in those countries is an average of 44 and an economy of 3.25. Jadeja and Ashwin are too, and the transformed attack leader Ishant and the ever-impressive Bumrah were always lock-ins, so the only real dilemma India had to wrestle with was the identity of the third fast bowler.
It is a measure of how impressive Siraj is that it was even a question. His figures are good, but it was his character that shone through most on a tour of Australia that started with personal tragedy, went through racist abuse and ended in triumph with Siraj the most experienced fast bowler left standing in just his third Test.
They are different bowlers. Shami is a skiddy, awkward customer who thumps the splice of the bat, bowls a well-disguised bouncer and has a seam position to die for, while the taller Siraj’s main weapon is swing at pace. He rose through the domestic ranks swinging the ball into the right-hander, and has now added with an outswinger learned from no less a practitioner than Dale Steyn.
And while there was some noise about picking Siraj to swing the new ball, India have rewarded Shami for his consistency and his sheer threat. He has taken 36 wickets at 19.77 in the World Test Championship, has a strike rate bettered only by Bumrah among Indians (and better than such greats as Hadlee, Michael Holding and Dennis Lillee), and cannot possibly be as unlucky as he was last time he toured England when he had five catches dropped out of 11, 26% of deliveries edged or missed, and having an average 15 runs higher than expected was just cruel. Picking between them was a tough question, but one that in truth had no wrong answers.
NEW ZEALAND PREDICTED XI
Tom Latham, Devon Conway, Kane Williamson (c), Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling (wk), Kyle Jamieson, Neil Wagner, Tim Southee, Ajaz Patel, Trent Boult
Williamson (left elbow) and Watling (back) have been passed fit after missing the second Test against England, certainly fit enough to make the final XV. Will Young and Tom Blundell showed in the Edgbaston victory that they would be capable stand-ins if required, but let’s assume for now that the captain will get to lead his team in their final push for glory and the wicket-keeper will get to end his fine Test career on the biggest stage.
Like India’s, the top six picks itself. Unlike India, that wasn’t true a few weeks ago, but once Conway replaced his friend Blundell in such spectacular fashion, pencils turned to permanent marker, and England hospitably bowled the increasingly limited Taylor back into form.
They won’t have it easy – the left-handers Latham, Conway and Nicholls will have Ishant and Ashwin to contend with, Bumrah and Shami will menace the right-handers Williamson, Taylor and Watling, and Jadeja doesn’t care what hand you bat with. But New Zealand’s selection dilemmas are amid the bowlers, and there are two non-negotiables. Boult and Southee are a wonderful pair with old ball and new, swinging the ball one way and seaming it the other, and both have wickets in the bank against India recently (not to mention on this trip). Indeed, New Zealand’s pace bowling battery did a number on India’s middle-order in the two Tests in Wellington and Christchurch in early 2020. The smarts to devise plans and the skills to execute them met – Boult challenged Pujara’s low hands and inside edge, Jamieson and Wagner went short at Rahane, and the entire attack ganged up on Kohli with Southee taking the lead.
Colin de Grandhomme is a very effective all-rounder in isolation (he averages 37 with the bat while scoring at nearly five an over, and 32 with the ball while going at a miserly 2.39 runs per over, but his real value is in balancing the side and allowing the four horsemen to give their steeds a rest and a rubdown in the stables. He has played a huge part in getting New Zealand where they are, and is the safe option. But New Zealand can afford not to play it safe, because not only has Jamieson hit the ground running in Test cricket with the ball, he is a skilful and powerful lower-order batter who head coach Gary Stead believes can bat at No 7 if needed.
This opens up a spot for Ajaz, the best pure spinner in New Zealand and someone who may take heart from Jack Leach’s success against Pujara in particular in India, and still allows all four frontline seamers to play. It’s a longer tail than some, with Wagner a slightly over-promoted No 8 and Southee an entertainingly one-track No 9.
But trusting your top seven to score the runs and your best bowlers to take the wickets? There are worse strategies to employ in a final than the tried-and-tested. Neither India and New Zealand are innovators – they have robust infrastructure and solid systems enabling good players to do simple things well. So why, with glory on the line, would they change that now?