With the rain forecast already ominously in place, India will have to beat New Zealand at Southampton’s Rose Bowl to win the inaugural World Test Championship. Add Duke balls, with pronounced seams and notoriety for facilitating huge swing, to the picture and the task looks challenging.
England is a bit of a unique place. It can rain anytime there and as a result life is never easy for a batsman; for moisture from rain water can change the pitch from seraphic to demonic in no time. The overcast conditions make the ball swing prodigiously either way.
New Zealand have been in England for last one month and have played two Tests against them to boot. And thus, they are more adapted to the conditions than the Indians. High quality match practice as well as a 1-0 win in the rubber is another thing that will provide them with buoyancy heading into the game from Friday onwards.
So, it is clear that the only way Virat Kohli’s men can beat the odds is if — yes, the only condition — they can bat well, if they can bat as if their lives depended on it. If the Indians can bat tenaciously like they batted against Australia in Sydney and Brisbane not long ago, they can come out on top -- no two ways about it. Both bowling sides are expected to be effective in friendly conditions, so everything comes down to who bats well.
India haven't seen much success in England particularly since 2011. They lost all four matches in 2011 and then went on to lose 3-1 in 2014 before tasting a 4-1 defeat in 2018. For the simple reason that they underperformed with the bat. Last time they played at Southampton in 2018, they couldn’t chase down 245. Forget that, they couldn’t even chase down 194 in the first Test of the same series at Birmingham. Not difficult to imagine what would have happened if the Indian batsmen had batted in line with their reputation.
The 2019 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand. A different format but the same story as Kohli’s men couldn’t hunt down 240 runs on an Old Trafford wicket, made even more difficult by rain. So, there are quite a few recent instances of the Indian batting failure in England.
Not much favouring the Indians going into the final, one would be tempted to say.
Well, they may not have the foolproof technique to play swinging balls but they do have plenty of confidence which comes particularly from their Test series win in Australia. Despite losing several players to injuries and Kohli to paternity leave after the first Test, the Indians, under Ajinkya Rahane, defied all odds to stun the Aussies in their own den. Then they beat England at home after losing the first Test. Only such victories bring out the real champions in players.
Gone are the days when the Indians could easily be intimidated by fast bowlers and their bouncers as they amply demonstrated in Australia. But swing still bothers them — remember, how Kohli had a horrid time in England in 2014 with just 134 runs across 10 Test innings? — and England is all about swing.
While how the batsmen will negotiate the swinging ball should be of utmost importance, the Indian team management will do well to remember that finding the right bowling unit is of no less importance. The idea of playing both R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja — being mooted by some sections in the Indian cricket fraternity — doesn’t look appealing in any way on a pitch that could be as demanding to spinners as it could be to batsmen. “Horses for courses”, should be abided by at all costs.
India had lost both their Tests in New Zealand on their last tour there and that may also play at the back of their minds but now’s not the time to dwell on what happened in the past. Time is rather to take the bull by its horns and that’s the only way the Indians could fare well and truly earn the tag “the number one Test side in the world”. A batting-for-life approach can go a long way towards their achieving what may look like a tough target at present.