Sublime New Zealand win inaugural World Test Championship

New Zealand 249 (Conway 54, Williamson 49, Shami 4-76) and 140 for 2 (Williamson 52*, Taylor 47, Ashwin 2-17) beat India 217 (Rahane 49, Kohli 44, Jamieson 5-31) and 170 (Pant 41, Southee 4-48) by eight wickets

Even the England weather couldn’t summon enough cruelty to break New Zealand hearts once again. Two years after they lost out on the ODI World Cup without actually losing the final, glorious late-evening sunshine saw New Zealand through to their first world title, the inaugural World Test Championship. It was well past regulation closing time on the reserve day, the sixth of the match, which featured only three-and-a-half days of actual cricket because of bad weather.

But what cricket it was. Two absolutely high-quality sides in extremely difficult conditions for batting combined to produce a thrilling contest of cricket in such little time. New Zealand needed to be highly efficient, consistent and skillful if they were to have a chance of winning this, and they managed it just in time.

New Zealand began the final day – on which the ICC guaranteed 98 overs weather permitting, never mind the over rates – needing eight wickets before they could get to bat and knock off the runs conceded plus the 32 India were in the clear at the end of day five. They managed to take a wicket every five-and-a-half overs with precise planning and execution of those plans by a relentless attack.

A target of 139 in 53 overs wasn’t exactly a cake walk: the previous three innings had gone at 2.35, 2.5 and 2.32 an over, and India were not laying anything on the platter. By the time R Ashwin took out both the openers, they had managed just 44 in 17.2 overs. A lesser batting unit might even have taken a risk here and given India a window, but the old firm of Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson took them home with a calm yet urgent and unbeaten partnership of 96 in 28.3 overs.

It was so tight there was no room for any mistake or further weather disruption. As things got tight, New Zealand’s minds might have gone to the cricketing gods. To the boundary countback, to all the near misses, to the one hour of rain on the fifth morning out of nowhere (it didn’t rain in many other neighbourhoods in Southampton), to the dropped catch of Rishabh Pant on the sixth day, which made it too close for comfort as New Zealand strove to get the final wickets.

In the end, India were the side left looking to cricketing gods, having lost yet another knockout match in an ICC tournament, now their sixth without a title since the Champions Trophy in 2013. The uneven bounce on practically a fourth-day track will serve as a teaser of what might have been had Southampton remained dry for the duration of the final. Then they lost the toss after a whole day of rain and got the worst of the conditions.

There might be some criticism of India’s batting, which lasted just 73 overs in the second innings, but they were up against a relentless five-man seam attack. That attack knew it would have to prise the wickets out.

Not for the first time, Kyle Jamieson raised his hand in the first session. His height and skills made Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara play at balls they have become expert at leaving. The first-innings lbw would have been fresh on Kohli’s mind when one more inswinger from Jamieson hit him on the pad, but a touch too high this time. That was perhaps why Kohli pushed at a short-of-length ball well outside off, edging him through. Immediately after, Pujara chased a length ball just outside off, getting out caught at slip off a fast bowler for the first time since December 2019.

With his tail up, Jamieson nearly made it three in a quick time with a near replay of Pant’s dismissal of the first innings but Tim Southee spilled it at second slip. Southee, who had an ordinary first spell on day two, had kept New Zealand ahead on day five with an attacking 30 to get them the lead and then two skilful lbws off inswingers to send back the Indian openers in flat conditions in the evening. Now with the time running out, a catch was dropped and Pant was tormenting New Zealand with streaky runs.

However, cricket gods gave New Zealand one back when Ajinkya Rahane gloved an innocuous Trent Boult delivery down the leg-side half an hour before lunch, making it 109 for 5, a lead of 77. It was about this time that India decided it was going to be a matter of runs and not time with the forecast good for the rest of the match.

Pant and Ravindra Jadeja took their chances as Boult and Southee attacked leading into lunch. By lunch it became practically 98 for 5. Now New Zealand could not afford another cameo. Now the pitch looked flat. Now the batters looked comfortable. Now was the time for Neil Wagner. He launched a short-ball barrage that not only shut down the scoring but eventually – in the 10th over of that spell – brought the Jadeja edge to a length ball for a catch that took BJ Watling to No. 7 on the all-time catches list, in his last Test. He took this one with a dislocated ring finger, refusing to go off.

Pant, who had been audacious in becoming the top scorer in this innings, finally took one chance too many, skipping down at Boult and getting a massive edge. This looked like it was going to fall safe until Henry Nicholls ran back from point and took it over his shoulder, making the toughest genre of catches look ridiculously simple. Flood gates opened after that, but a chancy 13 from Mohammed Shami made it an asking rate of 2.62 in the last innings.

India made a testing start with the new ball before Ashwin breathed life into their spirits with some wizardry to get rid of the openers, both left-hand batters. Tom Latham was stumped off a sharp offbreak, Devon Conway lbw to the straighter one. During that spell of play, six overs produced four runs, taking the asking rate to an even three an over for the last 31 overs.

It was not all about asking rate. If you went chasing too hard and took your eye off, there was every chance there could be a collapse that could have brought India right back in. New Zealand wanted to score the runs faster but without risking getting into a position where they would have to fight for a draw.

Under this pressure, Taylor and Williamson found the right balls. The flagging Shami, bowling his eighth over out of 23 in the innings, provided the first leeway with balls short and wide. Taylor then took Ashwin on and cleared wide mid-on. Now they had the flow in the innings, and all their experience and expertise came to the fore as they first steadied the ship and then saw it home at 6.35pm, ironically, in bright sunlight.