All talk about Indian cricket in recent weeks has centred around the suspended IPL 2021: when and where can it be resumed, will all overseas players engaged in it will be available in the revised itinerary, whether in fact resumption of the tournament is feasible.
At stake is Rs 2500 crore so the BCCI’s desire to ensure that IPL 2021 is completed is understandable. Unofficially, the Indian cricket board had been in parleys with the England Cricket Board to explore if a three-week window is possible between the World Test Championship and the 5-Test series versus England to finish the remaining part of the tournament.
The ECB, by all accounts, is unwilling to tweak its domestic itinerary, including the 5-Test series against India. This has prompted BCCI to look elsewhere to take IPL 2021 to culmination. The most likely venue in the circumstances will be the UAE, where the 2020 season was held without hitch.
The tour of England finishes mid-September and the T20 World Cup starts on October 18. The BCCI hopes to use this window to complete the truncated IPL tournament. Given that the pandemic situation in India currently is not encouraging for any sports event in the country till possibly the end of the year, it is likely that the T20 WC may also be shifted to UAE.
But while the reasons for completing the IPL season are compelling, the bigger cricketing challenges for Indian cricket come from the World Test Championship final against New Zealand (starting June 18) and the 5-Test series against England which starts on August 4.
The World Test Championship is a brave concept by the ICC to advance the cause of the five-day format, otherwise under assault from white ball cricket, especially T20, which has become like a tsunami since it was introduced a decade and a half back. The inaugural tournament has had a wobbly path because of the Corona pandemic, but has managed to stay afloat and reaches a climax in just over three weeks.
India has been the top-ranked Test side for over three years. In the WTC points table too, the country finished top of the points table, so there is a great deal of expectation vested in Virat Kohli’s team. For the captain personally who is still seeking an ICC trophy in any format, this comes as a splendid opportunity.
Where the Test series against England is concerned, the task for Kohli & Co is no less onerous. India’s record in England has been quite dismal. There have been three tours in the past decade (2011, 2014, 2018), and India, after promising much, have lost the Test series each time.
The last victory over England in England had come in 2007 when Rahul Dravid’s side clinched the rubber in a tight contest. In the 14 years since, Indian teams have done rather well in other overseas countries except here. A Test series win in England remains another unfulfilled ambition so far for Kohli.
The WTC final, however is the more prestigious. Along with a trophy, it carries the tag of World Champion, which makes it more coveted for players than the ICC Test rankings. Winning the final is obviously India’s toughest assignment this year, and made even more testing by several factors.
For instance, while New Zealand have been in England for a while now, the Indian players leave for Blighty on June 2. The biggest problem teams visiting England face is acclimatization. The Kiwis already have a big advantage in that respect. Moreover, while the Indian players will be serving out a 10-day quarantine period in Southampton after reaching England, New Zealand will be playing a two-Test series against the home team.
India’s players have been allowed practice during quarantine and some intra-team matches, but playing competitive cricket, that too Test matches, will be of considerable help for Kane Williamson and his team to prepare for the WTC final.
It must be mentioned here that this favourable itinerary for New Zealand is not by design but a stroke of luck. Australia’s refusal to tour South Africa in January-February this year helped the Kiwis overhaul them in the WTC points table. Their two-Test series against England had been finalized just before that.
While all these things were out of India’s control, it must not be overlooked that when the two teams met last in 2019-2020, the Kiwis had whipped India 2-0 in a home series. Conditions in England are considered similar to what obtains in New Zealand: softish pitches which help seam, and overcast conditions which help swing.
While the New Zealand batting is somewhat wobbly, Williamson has a formidable pace attack at his disposal which can put the Indian batting to severe test. Also, as they had shown during the 2019 ODI World Cup too, under Williamson the Kiwis are deeply ambitious and relish a battle, particularly against more fancied teams.
India are forewarned. Defeat in the WTC final will not affect their ICC Test ranking, but they will not be the world champion side in the format.