For subcontinental teams, there is no greater challenge in Test cricket than playing in England in June. The pitches are fresh, it is summer only in classification, foreboding clouds are the norm rather than the exception, and the dark-red Dukes ball adopts a mind of its own, either jagging in and out considerably on hitting the deck, or whooping around corners when the bowlers pitch it up, looking for swing.
India, indefatigable India who were resilient beyond belief in the lead-up to the final of the inaugural World Test Championship, must have fancied their chances against New Zealand. They put up a characteristically feisty first-innings display with bat and ball in conditions that tested their technique, character, skills and fortitude. In the most arduous batting phase, they eked out ugly runs by putting mind over matter, and did well with the ball when the pitch began to flatten out to keep New Zealand’s lead to manageable proportions.
To see them, therefore, roll over without a fight on the sixth morning was unexpected. Only the fancifully optimistic would have entertained visions of an Indian victory when play started on Wednesday. Most things pointed to the Test ending in a stalemate and the teams sharing the honours. For the first time in the Test, the sun was out in all its pristine glory, and everyone knows how much the Indians enjoy the fiery sphere beating down on their backs. One of the offshoots of a bright, clear day was that much of the moisture and life seeped out of the surface, and even though there would be movement throughout, it was nothing India’s celebrated batting line-up wasn’t incapable of handling.
Sound as that theory was, India and their millions of fans were in for a rude shock. No one was under any illusion that New Zealand would stick to their disciplines, but to see India capitulate tamely was unedifying. Within half-hour of the start, Kyle Jamieson had winkled out Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara and, with it, any hope of India scrambling to safety.
New Zealand were deserving and worthy victors, clearly the better outfit during the duration of the Test even if India were the more consistent side during the league phase of the WTC. Admittedly, they were more familiar with what Southampton offered than the Indians. After all, this was the closest they could have got to what they encounter day in and day out, in their own backyards in Christchurch and Wellington and Auckland and Dunedin. Furthermore, they were given a massive boost by Kane Williamson calling right at the toss, allowing his bowlers first bite at the cherry when batting was at its most hazardous.
The loss of the final doesn’t take a lot away from India’s standing as a top Test side, and as one of the better travelling units at a time when teams are invincible at home but less than competitive away. Yes, it would have been great to have capped an incredible late run to the final, which stemmed from come-from-behind series wins in Australia and against England at home with the prestigious mace and the $1.6 million prize money, and more so given India have only encountered disappointment and heartbreak in worldwide competitions for a long time now. Exactly eight years to the day since they last triumphed in an ICC event, the Champions Trophy in 2013, India surrendered to New Zealand by eight wickets, extending Kohli’s drought in his quest for meaningful global silverware.
What this defeat has done is reiterate how much work lies ahead as India chase their first series win in England since 2007. The six weeks between now and the beginning of the first of five Tests, in Nottingham on August 4, must be utilised purposefully if India are to translate their desire into reality as they kick off their campaign in the second cycle of the WTC.
India will take heart in the knowledge that in August-September, overhead and pitch templates are unlikely to remain the same. Well-worn pitches won’t ask the same demanding questions as at the start of the season, and generally August and September are relatively rain-free. Additionally, the used pitches should encourage spinners R Ashwin, brilliant in Southampton, and Ravindra Jadeja substantially, all welcome possibilities.
What will not change is the searching examination their batsmen will be put through by a crack England attack with James Anderson, on the cusp of overtaking Anil Kumble as Test cricket’s third-most prolific wicket-taker, and Stuart Broad at the forefront. When the Indian squad reassembles after a short holiday, the coaching staff will be seized with the need to facilitate minor technical adjustments that, allied with changes in mindset, should help them deal better with swing and seam while removing premeditation and therefore flawed setups in their batting approach.
Kohli has hinted at tough calls in light of the Southampton defeat, harking back to his favourite word, ’intent ’, ostensibly a reference to No 3 Pujara, the senior-most batsman who laboured for 54 and 80 deliveries to make eight and 15 respectively. Pujara has been a wonderful servant instrumental in both series wins in Australia two years apart, but repeated exhortations haven’t triggered a change in attitude, which is unlikely to please Kohli or equally positive-minded head coach Ravi Shastri one bit.
The other, equally concerning, development has to be the lack of efficacy of Jasprit Bumrah. Since his back injury in the West Indies in August 2019, Bumrah has been a pale shadow of his electric self in the longer version. From January 2020, eight Tests have yielded a mere 21 wickets at a high 34.95. More damagingly, six of those games have been in New Zealand, Australia and now England. Bumrah established himself as Kohli’s go-to man within weeks of his Test debut in early 2018. Now, he is in a race against time to rediscover himself this early in his career and provide the cutting edge so sorely missing in Southampton.