After 144 years, cricket’s longest format should finally get its first official champion after India and New Zealand do battle in the maiden World Test Championship final.
The match schedule has been extended by a day – from five to six – to try to ensure there is a winner. Even then, though, the UK weather might play spoilsport.
It would be pushing it to suggest the first WTC has been a wild success, delivering on the promise to restore big crowds to the format.
The final does, though, unquestionably pit together the two best sides in Test cricket. So who is going to win out?
The sides will be led by two players who could each lay a fair claim to being the best all-court batsman in the world.
Kane Williamson missed the second of New Zealand’s Tests against England with an elbow injury, but is said to be fit to return for the final.
Oddly, given his excellence everywhere else, England has seldom been a happy hunting ground for Williamson in Tests. His average of 26.10 is less than half his career batting average.
His opposite number, Virat Kohli, is set to captain India for the 61st time, moving him ahead of MS Dhoni as the man to have led India in the most Tests.
He has won 60 per cent of those matches, which is the best rate of any India captain, too.
The key battles
Kyle Jamieson reportedly opted out of bowling to Kohli at Royal Challengers Bangalore nets during this year’s IPL. Apparently, he was playing the long game: he did not want to provide a chance for the RCB captain to formulate a plan to face him.
Kohli had been Jamieson’s second Test match wicket, when the 6ft 8in bowler burst on the scene in his debut series last year.
He excelled in that series on home soil, and might find conditions in England suit him, too – although there was not much evidence to go on during the one Test he played at Lord’s earlier this summer.
India’s seamers, too, will find much to like about bowling at Southampton. Crucial to their hopes of success will be how quickly they can find a method to stop Devon Conway, the New Zealand opener who was a revelation in his debut series against England.
Both sides will be factoring in spin issues when settling on their final XI. For India, that will be about how many spinners they should play. For New Zealand, it could be about whether they play one at all.
The Black Caps’ main selection dilemma appears to be whether to play Colin de Grandhomme – and thus strengthen their batting – or left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel.
Patel, who will be facing the country of his birth if he does play, did well when the opportunity arose against England in the second Test at Edgbaston. But his selection would lengthen New Zealand’s tail.
The fact the match is due to last six days, rather than five, could prompt more attritional batting than usual. Increased wear of the pitch could also make a spin option even more vital.
Although, that said, having plenty of days of cricket scheduled does not guarantee plenty of overs will be bowled.
It’s summer. In England. What else would people want to talk about other than the weather?
The scheduled fourth day of the final will be the summer solstice. The longest day of the year, the height of summer.
So, predictably, rain is forecast. In fact, rain is forecast on all but the second day of the match. The UK’s Met Office have even provided a yellow warning, meaning they anticipate there could be flooding.
It feels a pity this game – purported to be the pinnacle of the Test game – will be being played at the Ageas Bowl.
Although it is agreeably well-appointed – especially in Covid-times – it does lack the history and allure of Lord’s, which had been scheduled to stage the final before the pandemic.
Southampton has played host to just six Test matches so far – none of which has ended in a draw.
The ground is generally felt to favour seamers. In the three Test matches which were played there in the lockdown summer last year, only 12 wickets fell to spin.
However, when India played England there in 2018, off-spinner Moeen Ali was man of the match for taking nine wickets in the match.