TWO SETS OF THOUGHTS BEFORE THE WTC FINAL AT SOUTHAMPTON

Two posts between New Zealand’s thrashing of England in the second Test at Birmingham and the WTC final at Southampton.

WHY NEW ZEALAND ARE STRONG FAVOURITES IN THE WTC FINAL
Posted on 16th June here.

With cloudy weather along with some rain now being predicted at Southampton during much of the WTC final, this gives New Zealand even more of an advantage now. It also increases the space between the two sides on several counts.

Not many seem to appreciate how much of an underdog India is in this match. It could be the biggest thrashing India has ever received on an international stage till date, on a big occasion (even worse than World cup 2003). But then again, the odds are so squarely against them that it might also just bring out their best. But for that to happen, they need to challenge NZ with their strengths, by actually walking the talk of positivity and aggression that Shastri-Kohli have often spoken of. Which is why, instead of going for the insurance of an extra batsman in Hanuma Vihiri, they need to play both Ashwin and Jadeja. Regardless of conditions, those two will give NZ something different to combat and get them out of their comfort zone. The only chance India has in this match is if NZ’s batting collapses — and they need the unpredictability of this attack to even attempt that. Both are genuine all-rounders and in fact, better batting options than the orthodoxy of a specialist batsman in tough batting conditions, which these are likely to be. Pant, Ashwin and Jadeja at 6, 7 and 8 is as good a middle order as India has ever had. Shami, Ishant and Bumrah constitute a fine pace attack, but without enough practice in these conditions. The openers will face the biggest challenge — it is probably a mistake to pick Gill over Agarwal, given the latter’s experience in similar conditions against this same NZ attack (with some success as well) — that would have been gold here. Rohit as a Test opener in England also makes little sense, given his well-known weakness of the moving ball (especially when it comes in), making Agarwal’s absence a double mistake.

NZ have fewer reasons to think of Ajaz Patel now as spin will probably only come into play on the last day; they’d be better off trying to finish the match way before that (as the deeper the match goes, the more it will probably favour India). With Southee in form, Boult coming back and Jamieson hard to leave out due to his performances against India earlier last year, it is interestingly Matt Henry who makes a stronger case than Wagner in an all-seam attack (Wagner, for his spirit, would be a top pick in Australia; not in these conditions). Not just for Henry’s man-of-the-match performance in the previous Test but also for demolishing India in the July 2019 World Cup semi-final in similar conditions. Those four, with the holding movement of de Grandhomme — in swinging conditions — this attack would actually challenge the greatest Test teams in history.

There are still many who think NZ was lucky in the 2019 World Cup. They don’t know that in the practice match played in May 2019 with NZ at the Oval (each team played two practice games), India had collapsed exactly the same way against more or less this same pace attack in a match that would eerily be echoed in the July semifinal about six weeks later. Like the semifinal, India’s top order collapsed against the NZ pacers, Jadeja shone with the bat, Pandya and Dhoni promised more than they delivered, and for the Kiwis, Williamson and Taylor got the runs. In fact, when the India-NZ group match in June was washed out due to rain, almost everybody suggested that NZ had got away, when actually it was India who was luckier (I seemed to have been the only one then to suggest this, to some laughter). But there is a proviso. In the other practice match that NZ played in May 2019, against West Indies at Bristol, on a ridiculously flat pitch WI got 421 in 49 overs and NZ managed 330 in 48. That was the fear for NZ in that World Cup — on flat pitches their strengths would be neutralised somewhat. Thankfully for them, they got less of the flatter pitches, and the tournament also generally benefited by showcasing very few flat pitches of that kind (which also made it the best-fought World Cup till date). But this condition still holds true. NZ’s strengths would be neutralised considerably even more in this format if Southampton serves up a flat pitch. Given how meaningless a spectacle a flat pitch Test match is, no one except India (and their fans) would hope for those kinds of conditions.

But everything is indicative of swinging conditions so far — where no team has had India’s measure more than NZ. Given that, it’s actually very interesting that NZ’s best option here would be an all-pace attack and India’s to include two spinners — this is what makes Test cricket so fascinating. Regardless of whether BCCI had a role to play or not in the venue shift from Lord’s, given a choice, Southampton is probably the ground India would have most wanted to play this one-off match in. Even though they’ve lost both their previous Tests here, there have been spin performances to remember here, from Moeen Ali most notably, but also Jadeja in one instance. The lack of requisite dry weather has however taken some luck away from India. But if the pitch is even reasonably flat and later offers spin, despite the swinging conditions, India could be in the game.

Still, given NZ’s tremendous batting depth, just the right bowing for these conditions, enough match practice, India’s lack of it and a very well-known weakness against the moving ball, the percentages favour NZ significantly — probably in the region of 65–35. It could well be a three-day carnage, despite the rain.

India has never been in a situation like this. In any deciding Test of a series, it gets used to the conditions (and opposition strengths in those conditions) considerably by the time the last Test comes. This is what makes this challenge the hardest India has ever encountered in its Test history. Harder than the deciding Tests in its two greatest series wins till date — in 2001 and earlier this year, both against Australia. Which is why a win here could well be India’s greatest Test win ever, against the odds. For that to happen, given the opposition here and the conditions, the quality of cricket would also have to be of that standard.

And this is also why it is so exciting for me personally. Only thrice previously have I ever supported a side over India; all were in specific events (Sri Lanka in the 1996 WC; New Zealand in the 1999 WC and the 2000 Champions Trophy). This is the first time I have supported a team over India in all formats since 2018 — and New Zealand has delivered big time, literally going from strength-to-strength. And I’m not the only one, as I realised in a London pub in July 2019 when India’s top order was collapsing live in the semifinal. I was exalting without abandon which led many in the pub to think I was probably a Pakistani. When I corrected them, and gave my reasons for supporting NZ, two of them, both Englishmen (one with a Kiwi wife though), actually said that they would support NZ too in the final even if England met them there (the second semi between England and Australia was scheduled for the next day). This NZ team has won hearts and minds everywhere — certainly one of the most loved teams in history, with good reason, as their dignified behaviour after those gut-wrenching closing moments in the World Cup final showed.

Contrary to popular assumption, NZ’s distribution of luck is not different from other teams’ in the WTC — only India had a big away win (against the odds, in Australia — very fittingly are India top of the table). In the WTC, NZ just got two away series (and it drew in Sri Lanka against a very decent team but lost to Australia — their only real blip in all this time) but since 2018 (which is when this current team fully came of age), NZ has won two other away series, against Pakistan in the UAE and England in England — both historic in an overall sense, not just for NZ. This is also a good time to remember that the only team that thrashed India in the WTC is New Zealand, even if in their backyard. And also that home advantage generally has become a much bigger thing in the last decade than ever before. It is not a coincidence that the home team has won the last 3 World Cups; Test cricket has also seen more home dominance around the world in the last decade than ever before. That NZ get a shot at the Test championship in conditions they’re comfortable in is perhaps a mere evening out of luck somewhat, given the cruelty of the 2019 WC’s closing moments.

And this is why it is so exciting even for me, whose #1 team is New Zealand, obviously followed by India. If NZ beats India hollow, my team wins and makes history. For India to win, they will have to produce a level of cricket that matches their quality of play in 2001 and earlier in Australia this year. That’s an utterly delightful prospect. Now for nature to show some respite, after the mayhem of the last 20 months. It owes us now.

ENGLAND’S HISTORIC LOW
Posted on 14th June here.

Just for perspective, New Zealand vs India in the World Test Championship final is like Pune vs a team selected from the rest of India. Or, since football is the flavour now, Norway vs a team that has selected the best players from Europe, South America and Mexico in its XI. That’s what 5 million vs 1.4 billion means, in case India’s enormous team depth comes to mind as has been hyped lately.

Meanwhile, New Zealand, faced with three back-to-back Test matches (very tough even in this age of fitness), made six changes from its first Test team, still comfortably beating England in their own backyard. Now, consider that their top scorer in the second Test and best bowler (who was also the Man of the Match) will be hard to include in their team against India, as they make at least five changes back in this team (though they should try and get Matt Henry in). That Kyle Jamieson and Neil Wagner may both sit out the final despite being fit is one of the great stories in the history of cricket. That is what depth really means, especially when you consider this is by far the least populated Test playing nation in the world.

This is why New Zealand has been my favourite cricket nation for four years now — as this incredible rise is the stuff of history, on par with India’s resurgence from 1983, Sri Lanka’s from 1996; that is how historic this has been. The 2019 World Cup final should have been that climatic moment for New Zealand but two extremely low IQ rules (only one of which has been done away with, further accentuating the intelligence of the people running the sport) robbing them of their rightful title.

England may have gotten very lucky that time (thanks to Stokes and Bairstow primarily and a still relatively unheralded Jason Roy) but it led to a distinct priority shift from Test cricket to white ball cricket there. The sound beating they’ve received in the sterner tests against New Zealand in both away and home series, and the away series in India, is actually overshadowed by the half-witted, barely believable policy decisions its team management has taken. Whether it’s the batshit crazy rotation policy or the newfound culture of outrage that left out their most impressive young player in recent times (Ollie Robinson’s “racist tweets” a decade ago when he was 18), English cricket is more in a free fall because of this than the talent available to them (with a sort of myopia beyond the outrage that destroyed players like Alex Hales and Steven Finn in the recent past, and could well have claimed Ben Stokes too). The latest “objections” to Morgan, Buttler and Anderson making fun of Indian accents years ago on Twitter should logically get them suspended too (as an Indian, I unequivocally say that this does not offend me in the least). But wait and watch, this is where the selective hypocrisy of these authorities will now creep in, as they cannot afford to lose the first two players in a priority format.

A country that probably has the strongest claim to making the most influential cultural and intellectual contributions in human history on a per capita basis, is today a thought leader in the shallowest and stupidest ideological “movement” in human history — the pseudo-religion of “wokeism” that future generations will bring up for comic relief. That has reduced racism to a sloganeering logo on Sky Sports (“Kick It Out”, it seems) and is destroying one of the greatest institutions of contemporary times — the BBC. That has made their colonial past the most significant conversation point of today (as if there is even a single empire/ country in history that has given up on colonial aims despite having the choice to pursue it) and allowed younger energies without requisite grey cells attached to aggressively inject colonial guilt on a generation that seems alarmingly incapable of thinking clearly or seeing any kind of big picture. But thinks virtue signalling empty gestures are worthwhile substitutes, even when they’re so transparently causing further unrest.

When this madness is let loose on the archaic mindset of the lowest IQ major sport in the world, mayhem is imminent. Just consider — the world’s #3 Test side overtly using its matches against the world’s #1 and #2 Test sides as preparation for its matches against the world’s #4 Test side at the end of the year is actually seen as par for the course by its media, in the name of tradition (which so many of them claim to abhor in other contexts). But even after England is thrashed black and blue in their home series against India, unable to reach the final in the World T20 championship (perhaps not even the playoffs) and annihilated in their Ashes tour in Australia, when their trajectory will resemble South Africa’s in recent times (for much the same reasons fundamentally), will this mindset that outrages selectively, makes people look over their shoulders and causes fragile “snowflake” temperaments be checked?

Instead of having real conversations, social media instincts are prioritising empty gestures over concrete actions. This is now becoming an era of words and gestures mattering more than action. England can at least claim the World #1 ranking in that.