Almost 150 years since the first ever Test match, cricket is finally attempting a World Cup of sorts for the game’s longest format.
The first ever final couldn’t be more intriguing. The well-resourced, stylish cricketing behemoths that are India versus the plucky, patient, understated New Zealand.
There’s lots to unpack about the next five days, which will likely be extended to six, and we’ve picked apart five of the most pressing matters below.
1. Does Neil Wagner miss for the Black Caps?
Let’s jump straight into selection. Unsurprisingly the world’s two best sides — who are both boasting almost fully fit squads — will have a number of tough calls to make ahead of the toss at 7pm ()AEST tonight.
It’s absurd to think that New Zealand’s heartbeat, Neil Wagner, could miss, but it seems increasingly likely. Three seamers are already locked in ahead of the fiery left-armer: Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson. And if Colin de Grandhomme is picked to bat at No. 7 as expected, the final spot in the XI is essentially a battle between Wagner and spinner Ajaz Patel, who impressed in last week’s win over England at Edgbaston.
Spin could prove crucial in the back half of the WTC final, and the Black Caps may well opt for Patel. They could of course play both – and leave De Grandhomme out – but that would leave Jamieson batting at No. 7, which is too risky against a quality bowling outfit like India.
2. Shami or Siraj?
If leaving out Wagner would be hard for New Zealand, bypassing Mohammed Shami would seem equally difficult for India. But they may just do it. As Australian fans know well, Mohammed Siraj was excellent in his debut series on these shores last summer, showing excellent control with the Kookaburra ball. Siraj replaced Shami after the fellow quick broke his arm in the second-innings rout in Adelaide and has surpassed expectations since.
This third seamers spot – after Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma – appears as India’s remaining question provided they play the dual-spin of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. And I think Siraj will get the nod.
3. Will contrasting preparations impact the result?
From a preparation perspective New Zealand would appear to have the upper hand. They’ve just played (and won) a competitive Test series against the host nation, while India were resigned to a mere intrasquad hit-out in Southampton.
Ashwin said this was an “advantage” to the Black Caps and that he and his teammates would “have to adapt quicker”. But as outlined in the CricViz Cricket Podcast this week, India boasts far greater historical experience in the UK. Seven players have played five or more Tests in the UK, while New Zealand has played just two.
It’s impossible to compare and weigh immediate versus historical experience, but in this instance it would appear things (roughly) even out. Quite simply, the better side will win.
4. Will we even see a result?
Given there’s inclement weather forecast in Southampton over the next five days, it’s a good thing the ICC have scheduled a reserve day for Wednesday, which will almost certainly be utilised. The worst of the forecast is unfortunately for tonight (Australian time), but fingers crossed we can get away on time.
The Rose Bowl is also a generally batting-friendly surface too, and England have twice posted scores in excess of 550 in the last five Tests played at the venue. With those two factors combined, we may well be going deep into Day 6 for the inaugural WTC final.
5. Can this whet the appetite?
Opinions on the WTC are clearly mixed, as expressed on these pages over the last year. Even the ICC has been hesitant about the format — incoming chairman Greg Barclay declared it not “fit for purpose” in November.
But there’s clearly been a change of heart, and the WTC is here to stay. The game’s governing body earlier this month confirmed a final would be played every two years from 2025 to 2031.
Make no mistake, this week’s final will shape views about the format. Just as the compelling 2019 World Cup did wonders for the relevance of 50-over cricket, an engrossing first-ever final will be crucial to its ongoing acceptance, as shortsighted as that might seem.
Context is important in cricket, and a thriving Test table system, shortcomings notwithstanding, will enhance the game.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The World Test Championship will be broadcast into Australia on Foxtel, streaming on Kayo, and the ICC app.