India 217 & 170 (Rishabh 41; Southee 4-48, Boult 3-39, Jamieson 2-30)
NZ 249 & 140-2 (Williamson 52*, Taylor 47*; Ashwin 2-17)
It was entirely fitting that the two highest runscorers for New Zealand in Test cricket should be at the crease when their side officially became the finest Test team in the world. Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor might jokingly think of retirement now as it surely can’t get much better than this and while that is a genuine option for the 37-year-old Taylor, you would think that Williamson, the captain, still only 30 despite seemingly being around for years, would like to see how many more fences this extraordinary collective can hurdle.
Neutrals will delight in the fact that the Test team with the lowest population to select from has beaten the one with the largest – true underdog stuff – but this team has punched above its weight now for so long that it well deserves its place in the ring with supposedly heavier rivals.
They are the best team in the world in the most fundamental sense of the word. Their seam quartet is a wonderful co-operative, one member filling in for the other whenever they sense the need to. And while Williamson is the outstanding batsman, the others seem quite at peace with their roles, whether it is the accumulation of openers Tom Latham and Devon Conway, the unhindered strokeplay of the likes of Kyle Jamieson and Colin de Grandhomme or the cavalier hitting of tailenders Tim Southee and Neil Wagner. They squeeze out every inch of their varying abilities. And they take joy in each others’ contributions.
On a final day – albeit the reserve one because of much inclement weather – when all four results were still possible, they took the remaining eight Indian wickets for the addition of only 106 runs and reached, in the end, what appeared at one point to be an unnervingly low target, with plenty of money in the meter, winning by eight wickets with seven overs remaining.
Before the start, it would have been fair to say that spectators were hoping for a competitive final day rather than expecting it. There was a feeling that despite some brave words, there was just too much at stake in terms of national pride – not to mention prize money – for any side to manufacture an opening for the other in an effort to win.
Yet, the arrival of Virat Kohli late on the fifth day, when he would have been quite at liberty to rely on a nightwatchman, hinted perhaps that the Indian captain did not want anyone holding up a push for runs on the final morning that would still give his side enough time to bowl their opponents out.
Indeed, as he took to the field with partner Cheteshwar Pujara, it was easy to reflect that India had the perfect men out there for the situation: Kohli the aggressor who could drive that hunt for a worthy target and Pujara the defender who could go back into survival mode should Kohli fall cheaply, or provide the ballast at the other end while others were given a freer rein.
Tim Southee had given New Zealand a tantalising glimpse of victory by removing the dangerous Rohit Sharma a quarter of an hour before the close on Tuesday, but it was Kyle Jamieson, preferred to Trent Boult to open the bowling, who stepped up to turn the contest on its side if not completely upside down. The 6ft 8in colossus, who has had such an outstanding start to his Test career, continued in that vein as he ripped out Kohli and Pujara in the first 40 minutes, Kohli to a collector’s item – a flat-footed waft outside the off stump that he will not want to think about for too long.
The double blow seemed to leave India in doubt about whether to stick or twist, the more defence-minded Ajinkya Rahane now in the middle with Rishabh Pant, a man possessing the ability and attacking flair to still take the game away from their opponents.
Pant, though, cut a conflicted figure, desperate to play his natural game – in fact probably encouraged to by his team management – but aware that crease occupation could also be vital in the final analysis. It brought about a series of questionable choices from the left-hander, one moment skipping down the pitch to punch Neil Wagner down the ground, the next smearing uglily across the line but still finding the boundary between third slip and gully. What’s more Jamieson thought he had him as he reached to drive a widish ball as it went across him, but Tim Southee, moving too eagerly across Taylor at first slip, shelled it.
Had he dropped the World Test Championship mace? It was a reasonable question to ask, since RIshabh was only on five at the time and by lunch, his counter-attack had taken him to 28 with much more, potentially, to come. By then, though, he had lost Rahane, who glanced Trent Boult into the hands of wicketkeeper BJ Watling as the left-armer, who in a less close-knit team could have been put out about being brought on only as second change, got among the wickets.
He got among them even more after the interval, taken with India on 130 for five, still only 98 ahead, but not before Ravi Jadeja, the left-handed allrounder had been softened up and then dismissed, caught behind off Wagner operating from round the wicket.
First, Boult got rid of the threatening Rishabh, who, on 41, rushed down the wicket and tried to lift over mid-on but got an outside edge that sent the ball swirling high over Henry Nicholls at backward point. It had been a quiet game until then for Nicholls but he was able to add his contribution to the team ethic by racing back, steadying himself and then taking a couple more steps to pouch it from over his shoulder for a truly excellent catch. That was 156 for seven and two balls later it was 156 for eight as Ravi Ashwin chased a drive to one slanted outside off stump and departed to Taylor’s catch at first slip.
With the lead still only 124, India were in real danger and while Ishant Sharma is the kind of limited lower-order batsman who can at least stick around and eke out a useful 15 or 20, his remaining team-mates were not of the same mind. Mohammed Shami went for some big shots, slicing Southee over the slips for four but perishing next ball when Williamson posted a fly slip, Shami repeated the shot and Latham hardly had to move to catch it.
When Southee finished what he had started when he took the two Indian wickets the night before by having Jasprit Bumrah caught at slip for a duck, New Zealand had been left with just 139 to win the inaugural title – not redemption for a World Cup that was snatched most unluckily from their hands at Lord’s in 2019 but a statement of what this team is capable of in all forms of the game.
Such seemingly insignificant targets have brought the downfall of many a well-equipped chasing sides caught between two stalls and while it is sometimes best for the batsmen to force the pace in such circumstances, it seemed unlikely that that would be New Zealand’s approach unless they were to innovate and push either De Grandhomme or Jamieson up the order to pinch hit. Williamson, not surprisingly, opted to slowly slowly catchee monkey and Devon Conway and Tom Latham edged their team to tea on 19 without loss from eight overs.
That left them needing another 120 in the 45 overs remaining.
With the pacemen unable to make the breakthrough after the break it fell to Ashwin to try to work some magic – and he did, first encouraging Latham down the pitch and spinning the ball past his drive for a simple stumping, then deceiving the estimable Conway with the non-spinning off break that troubled England so greatly in the winter and trapping him lbw as he played for the turn.
Williamson had only survived on review moments before Conway’s departure as he swept at what appeared to be a full, straight one – and what a moment that was in the match. Had Williamson gone at that point there could have been wobbles in the New Zealand dressing room, especially as Taylor seemed transfixed by Ashwin’s accuracy, using up 18 balls before he got off the mark at the other end, cutting Shami backward of square for four.
That seemed to give a man playing his 108th Test the confidence to take on Ashwin, who had imposed a stranglehold on the experienced pair that threatened to derail them by pressure alone – at one point there were 31 dot balls in a row.
Finally Taylor picked the spinner up over mid-wicket before driving him through the covers for another four. Suddenly Ashwin was forced to try something different, by coming round the wicket to the right-handers, but that felt like the moment the dam broke.
Gradually the pair, with more than 14,500 Test runs between them, began to find a little more fluency, only when Pujara put down Taylor at slip from a ball from the otherwise anonymous Bumrah with the score on 84 a moment of real concern.
The Indian paceman, who failed to take a wicket in a match in which he looked undercooked, as well as getting a pair with the bat, had one more opportunity to step out of the shadows when Williamson skied Shami as he tried to whip him through mid-wicket but Bumrah was never quite in position to take a difficult chance running to his left at point.
By then, though, only 12 runs were needed and the cricketing planets had aligned to ensure that these great servants of New Zealand cricket should have the chance to see it through to the end. Next ball, Williamson pulled Shami to square leg to reach a deserved half-century – only the second of the entire match and then, with seven overs to play, Taylor picked Shami up over square leg for four to kickstart enormous celebrations among the Kiwi faithful, who had seemed to swell throughout the afternoon as if there was some secret Antipodean breeding centre in the middle of Southampton.
Among the celebrations, however, an obviously disappointed Kohli found time to seek out his opposite number and grasp him in fond embrace that spoke volumes for his respect for his achievements.
The man himself, who saw his World Cup hopes disappear in a puff of unfortunate deflections and a super over, handled himself with the same dignity in victory as he had shown in defeat two Julys ago. The mace was his – and it could not be taken away from him.