The biggest question now in the lead up to the ICC World Test Championship final is: do New Zealand have an edge over India because they’re well prepared with a two-Test series against England? Plenty of experts, and even players, seem to think so. Even R Ashwin and Cheteshwar Pujara from the Indian team have agreed to the notion. Some like Sunil Gavaskar thought otherwise not too long ago; he said ‘pessimists’ will believe New Zealand will have an advantage. He added that New Zealand could get beaten and thus be low on morale, and there could be some injuries to key players.
Gavaskar might rethink that now. New Zealand did not get beaten. And while key players, including their captain Kane Williamson, did get injured, they were quick enough to rest them from the second Test with eyes on the bigger picture. And they went on to win, showing clear signs that they’re not dependent on ‘key players’ and have enough depth, much like their opponents for the WTC final. New Zealand could have perhaps won the first Test too, if they had time on their side.
The 1-0 series win over England was New Zealand’s statement in many ways. If at all there were any question marks on whether they deserved to be in the final, the answer has been emphatic. There were some prior to the England series; New Zealand had a terrific run in the Test Championship at home but hardly played away. Of their 11 matches, five were overseas, and they lost four of those. The lone overseas victory came against Sri Lanka in Colombo, while they were whitewashed in Australia. They compensated for that with a home run, winning six out of six.
India, on the other hand, swept West Indies away and beat Australia 2-1 down under in the famous series.
Back to New Zealand. How was their record in England? New Zealand last won in England in 2015, after which they haven’t played Test cricket there until this series. Prior to that victory, New Zealand had won in England only way back in 1999.
So, questions over New Zealand’s overseas abilities - against top sides - were not unfair. But the answer could not have been more emphatic. It did help that English conditions are not too dissimilar to ones at home, but to have beaten England despite making six changes to their XI in the second game says a lot about their tenacity and depth.
The positives for New Zealand start right from the top; Devon Conway made his debut in this series and started with a record 200 at Lord’s. And he followed it up with a near century in Edgbaston, looking as assured as a Test veteran. Williamson did not play the second Test, but Will Young stepped in for just his third Test, and promptly made a vital 82. Ross Taylor, the senior batsman, stepped up too with an important 80 of his own.
New Zealand did not have another key player - their crisis man BJ Watling, the wicketkeeper. In came Tom Blundell making an important 34.
The depth in bowling was there for all to see too. Tim Southee picked 7 wickets in the first Test but was out for the next. Kyle Jamieson picked three wickets in the first innings at Lord’s, and didn’t play the next. But the replacements? Trent Boult for Southee. Matt Henry for Jamieson. 12 wickets between then, wrecking England together. Left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel stepped in for the injured Mitchell Santner and picked up four wickets himself.
India will perhaps see this as the bigger challenge. India’s bowling is strong enough to handle any kind of batting unit. But the swinging ball can trouble India’s batsmen, and Henry and Boult, along with Southee, could just be the kind of bowlers they hate to face. Memories of the 2019 World Cup semifinal, anyone?
Only once in four innings in New Zealand last year did India’s batsmen cross 200. And while they did do tremendously well in Australia, it wasn’t exactly in swinging conditions; it was more of bounce than swing.
If India can manage the swing threat, they would fancy their chances. For now, New Zealand’s series against England has confirmed what most thought: that they do indeed have an advantage going in to the big game.