The first One-Day International was held on January 5, 1971. A little under four-and-a-half years later came the first limited-overs World Cup.
It didn’t take more than three-and-a-quarter years after the maiden Twenty20 International, on August 5, 2004, for the first World T20 to be hosted, in South Africa.
Against this backdrop, it is staggering that the first World Test Champion (WTC) will not be crowned until 144 years after the inaugural Test match, between Australia and England in March 1877.
Perhaps, for the longest of times, cricket’s world governing body did not feel the need for a Test championship. After all, for close to 94 years, at the international level, teams only contested one format. But with first the 50-over variant and, more alarmingly, the 20-over offshoot, threatening to sweep the traditional, most compelling version into oblivion, the International Cricket Council could no longer afford to sit back and do nothing to arrest the dwindling popularity and standing of Test cricket.
Celebrated protagonists of the wonderful game of bat and ball have, across generations, reaffirmed their commitment to and love for red-ball cricket, but their enthusiasm and passion hasn’t found resonance with the sport’s most important stakeholder, the paying spectator. You couldn’t really blame the fan. With the world desperate for instant gratification and various new diversions demanding attention, the lay fan would rather partake of three and a bit hours of cricket and entertainment in one riveting package than sit through the rigours of five days of nip and tuck, even at the end of which there was no guarantee of a decisive result.
Further, with the balance of on-field power decisively moving to and resting with a very select few, most Test series failed to thrill and excite. The weaning away of the audience had to be checked. Towards that end, and with a view to providing context and relevance, the ICC kicked off the inaugural World Test Championship in 2019, the winner being decided after a two-year cycle in a one-off shootout between the two top qualifiers.
With the world ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic over the last 15 months, it was inevitable that the WTC too would be hit. Already condensed into a nine-team competition with Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland kept out, the WTC was impacted by the cancellation of a host of series, necessitating a change to the qualification criterion. When the dust settled at the end of the churn, India and New Zealand had sealed their slots in the final, to be held in neutral Southampton from June 18.
Had this match been played anywhere else—other than New Zealand—Virat Kohli’s men would have begun strong favourites to end their eight-year barren run in global competitions and be celebrated as the first World Champions in Test cricket. However, because it is in England, there is very little to choose between the sides. If anything, Kane Williamson’s admirable bunch might start as marginal favourites because they are coming into the final after two excellent Test matches (and a series win) against England in England, whereas India’s last Test was in mid-March.
Only the very brave or the very foolish, however, will write India off for this, or any other, reason. The exploits of a team well below full strength in Australia against a home side that could and did summon all first-choice personnel are too fresh in memory to warrant repetition. Now that they are in a position to put out their strongest XI, India will be itching to wrap their hands around the winner’s mace, the spoils of war should they come up trumps. The winning purse of $1.6 million isn’t trifling, but that will neither be the spur nor the motivation for a side of millionaires helmed by a talismanic, mercurial skipper who hates coming home second best.
The balance India have worked so assiduously hard over so many years to achieve in their XI makes them a dangerous outfit in all conditions. The pace revolution that gathered steam towards the first half of the last decade has peaked to a crescendo, and while Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah are the clear leaders of that pack, the likes of Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur and Navdeep Saini showed in Australia when the entire original bowling attack was rendered hors de combat for the final Test in Brisbane that they hadn’t come along merely for the ride. The rounded look to the bowling is completed by deadly spin twins R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, both Test centurions as well and who are big beneficiaries of Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri’s insistence on playing five specialist bowlers.
New Zealand boast an equally incisive bowling unit even if their spin resources are nowhere near as accomplished as their opponent’s. What this effectively means is that the onus is entirely on the two batting groups. Which set manages to minimise the potency of the rival bowling attack will determine what course the five-day box-off takes. India have an experienced top-order that has toured England multiple times, but their records in that country are anything but encouraging. As ever, therefore, the onus will be on the captain to lead the way, much like he did in 2018 when he amassed 593 runs in five Tests, despite which his team went down tamely 1-4.
Skippers Kohli and Williamson locked horns in the semifinal of the Under-19 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur in 2008, little aware then that their careers would run parallel at the senior level for a long time and pit them against each other in a historic final, 13 years later. Not merely the best batsmen in their respective teams, they both have wonderful records as captains too. Like his Indian counterpart, Williamson doesn’t have a global trophy to boast of either. One of them will correct that anomaly in a week’s time. Who knows, both might too, in the unlikely event of the final ending in a stalemate.