India 217 & 64-2 (Southee 2-17)
New Zealand 249 (Conway 54, Williamson 49, Southee 30; Shami 4-76, Ishant 3-48)
Bedevilled by bad weather and conditions suited to a number of quality seam bowlers who, when they are not taking wickets are at least keeping a tight lid on the scoring rate, the inaugural World Test Championship final has discovered that attacking intent is more easily spoken about in pre-match press conferences than enacted in the middle.
That said the wicket of Rohit Sharma a quarter of an hour before the close, just pushed the door ajar slightly and left experienced Test-match viewers intrigued by what could yet unfold. Rohit misread a Tim Southee inswinger, padded up, and umpire Michael Gough confirmed the swing bowler’s plea.
But India captain Virat Kohli, always one to lead from the front – in some cases caricaturally – would have no truck with a nightwatchman and took to the crease himself in fading light. With the immovable Cheteshwar Pujara, he took India to the equivalent of 32 for two in one might now be seen as a one-innings match.
New Zealand had painstakingly passed India’s first innings total 20 minutes before tea on what would have been the final day in normal circumstances, and with the benefit of flurries from Kyle Jamieson and Tim Southee, went on to post a lead of 32 themselves before being bowled out.
Hopes that India would push on to set their opponents a total to chase midway through the reserve day turned out to be unrealistic: in the context of a low-scoring game, that lead could have been seen as a significant advantage and their first task was to try to wipe out that deficit with as little damage as possible.
The only other route to a clear result have would have been quick wickets for the New Zealand attack but, as it turned out, when they wanted gloomy overhead, the Southampton weather was at its sunniest of the match.
It meant that despite accurate bowling, the ball was not doing enough in the air while the pitch failed to act sufficiently spitefully to trouble batsmen of the quality that India possess.
But for that late wicket – and maybe even despite it – it looked as if Kohli and Kane Williamson, the respective captains, would have to have a serious sit-down at close of play if they were going to negotiate declarations and targets – and there was a sense that contriving a finish to this match would be to disrespect much that has gone before and been vigorously contested.
No one side has been recognizably superior to the other and so it might be that the ICC’s decision not to impose some sort of tie-breaker to produce a champion, and to stay true to a format that many will think has served Test cricket well for most of its 144 years, has proved to be the right one – even if it fails to convert many new spectators.
A New Zealand still captained by Brendon McCullum may have thought differently when trying to squeeze three days’ action effectively into two, a score on the penultimate morning of 101 for two – 116 behind – probably being a challenge to his particular brand of muscular cricket.
But Williamson, for all the good he has done in marrying that attacking legacy of the former captain with a pragmatic approach that makes the most of the collective, is a much more cautious individual and his country have had enough close misses in ICC competitions in recent years for him not to want to have a piece of the World Test Championship mace even if he has to share it with another.
Besides, any thoughts of hitting the ground running were dampened by a blustery wind and the presence of rain that did not clear for the start, which was delayed for an hour.
Ross Taylor had only faced two balls on Sunday night and Williamson started on 12 and while they could not be expected to win the game in the first session, they could quite easily lose it should they fail to apply the right ratio of watchfulness against three exceptional swing and seam bowlers.
A laboriously slow beginning – 13 overs up to drinks failed to produce a wicket but also only 15 runs – looked even more vital as three men went in the second hour before lunch. Henry Nicholls’ dismissal by Ishant Shama was sandwiched between those of Taylor and BJ Watling to Mohammad Shami, and by the interval New Zealand were still 82 behind with only five wickets in hand.
Williamson continued to stand firm but at a cost to the scoring rate, although Colin de Grandhomme and in particular, Jamieson, did their bit to reach parity with the India first innings total sooner rather than later. After De Grandhomme was trapped lbw, unmoving at the crease, the giant No 8 showed purpose from the outset. What he lacked in artistic merit was made up for with a series of drives, mostly poorly timed, that produced a series of five twos in one Ishant Sharma over – the first time that has happened in Test cricket since ball-by-ball date became available in 2001.
Jamieson then pummelled Shami for a huge six over long-on and in trying to repeat the feat, top-edged to long leg next ball, pouched just inside the rope by Jasprit. But his 21 from 16 balls had given the innings some impetus at last.
That left New Zealand 25 runs behind with three wickets in hand and when Williamson punched through the covers off the back foot to take his side into positive territory and his own score to 49 it seemed inevitable that the 30-year-old would reach only the second half-century of the match. But he almost immediately edged Ishant to Kohli at third slip, falling after a sojourn of 177 balls – more, some critics might like to consider, than Dom Sibley took over his 60 against New Zealand at Lord’s. Some inventive shots from Southee – his two sixes took him to 75 in Test cricket, past Ricky Ponting, not bad for a No 10 – and Boult improved the lead to 32 as Ravis Ashwin and Jadeja nipped in to pick up the last two wickets.
Sharma finished with three for 48 and Shami, who had been averaging 42 with the ball in England prior to this match four for 76.
Shubman Gill looked likely to be the only victim of the evening session in keeping with most of the match, falling lbw to Southee – his fourth leg-before dismissal in his six most recent completed innings – until Rohit departed, giving slight pause for thought that this final may just still be on as a contest.