Less than two years back -even after they had narrowly failed to beat England in the ODI World Cup in a rousing display — nobody gave New Zealand a hope in hell of making it to the final of the inaugural World Test Championship.
There were two reasons for this.
In limited overs cricket the Kiwis had been historically good (finalists in 2015, 2019, semi-finalists in 1975, 1979, 1992, 1999, 2007), but their Test record had been tepid. Not considered a marquee side, their progress in the past 6-7 years in the 5-day format was below the radar of opponents, critics and fans who missed the signs of a change taking place.
New Zealand’s growth trajectory in Test cricket has been fairly remarkable in this period. While most of the team’s successes have admittedly come in home conditions, their overall ‘improvement graph’ in the longest format has perhaps been the best of all Test-playing countries.
This has been markedly so in the last two years since the start of the World Test Championship in mid-2019, after the World Cup. New Zealand have won 4 of the 5 rubbers they’ve played, losing to Australia, but beating India, West Indies, Pakistan and England.
Undeniably there was an element of luck involved as they reached the WTC final, after Australia pulled out of a series against South Africa earlier this year. But this doesn’t take away anything from New Zealand’s progress. A scrutiny of international cricket across formats will reveal that while India have been the most consistent team, New Zealand have been the most improved.
Presently they are no.1 in Tests, no. 1 in ODIs and no. 3 in T20s. This is self-explanatory about their growth to excellence in the sports. In fact they’ve won 7 of their last 8 Tests, which is very good as far as their success rate is concerned, and carries huge significance going into the WTC final.
It is true that six of these victories have come at home, but two have come against India in 2019-20. This has deep relevance going into the WTC final as India were roundly walloped in both those Tests. Apart from getting valuable points, it provided the Kiwis belief that India could be beaten.
The victory at Lord’s last week is equally important in the context of the upcoming final. New Zealand’s Test performances in England in the past hasn’t been much to write home about. To whip Joe Root’s team in just over three days at Edgbaston shows how well primed the current Kiwi side is for Test cricket.
Of course, England were without star players Stokes, Butler and Archer. But in the first Test (drawn after a day was lost through rain), New Zealand were without Trent Boult and Aijaz Patel too. Williamson, Jamieson and Watling were rested in second Test, but despite this the Kiwis came up trumps in a stellar display with bat and ball.
Also, Williamson and Co enter the WTC final having beaten India in their last series. They played two Tests in England in the lead upto the big final, winning one to dislodge India from the no.1 spot in the ICC Test rankings. Kohli and Co, meanwhile, have spent the last fortnight largely in quarantine followed by some intra-squad matches as build up to the final. A stark contrast.
Overseas tours these days are frenetic, with teams being pushed into Tests almost immediately on reaching a country. But this is precisely why New Zealand’s itinerary this summer has come as a boon. Not only have they got sufficient days to acclimatize – as have India –but also had two hugely competitive games for players to fine tune skills and mindset for the final.
Apart from everything mentioned above, what makes the Kiwis dangerous adversaries for India is also the quality of players they have currently. While they don’t have mega stars that India have, the Kiwis don’t lag behind where individual performances are concerned.
The biggest star is captain Kane Williamson himself, and despite his batting brilliance over the past decade, he was – till recently –not as widely talked about as Virat Kohli, Steve Smith or Joe Root. Williamson has 7k-plus Test runs and averages 50+. These numbers define batting greatness. He’s got sublime technique, an unflappable temperament, and a deep desire to win which does not come through in his genial, gentlemanly conduct on and off the field but which all opponents acknowledge, nonetheless.
While Williamson is the bulwark and maestro, the New Zealand batting is not dependent only on him. Ross Taylor has 7000-plus runs at a 40-plus average. Tom Latham has 4000-plus Test runs and 40-plus average too. Henry Nichols has frequently shone in the middle-order and in the recent Tests against England, Devon Conway too scored a double ton on debut to emerge as a major player.
In the bowling department, Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner have over 800 Test wickets between themselves. Add a young Kyle Jamieson to this trio and the Kiwi pace attack appears very potent. Spin is one area where they are not as well served – going by records – but in English conditions, this may not be a great handicap if the others fire.
I have dwelt at length – almost entirely in fact – on New Zealand to dispel the misconception that they will be pushovers for the Indian team. If the last 24 months have shown anything about the Kiwis, it is that they are a well-jelled unit with each player aware of the task assigned to him.
India have magnificent players. They have also won back-to-back series to reach the final of the WTC, the one against Australia Down Under spectacularly achieved. There is richness of talent and experience and good balance in the squad for the selectors to choose from. But victory will have to be extremely hard-earned. There is zero scope for overconfidence or laxity.
My Playing XI for India: Rohit, Gill, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Pant, Ashwin, Jadeja, Ishant, Shami, Bumrah