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Between Wickets | The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong

New Zealand's Kane Williamson talks to India's Virat Kohli after New Zealand beat India in a test match at Basin Reserve, Wellington, New Zealand, February 24, 2020. File.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

When do you play your best team in a series? It’s a question modern captains and coaches have to answer. This, just after they have answered a more important one: Which is your best team?

Two recent series victories, India’s in Australia, and New Zealand’s in England have shown that the World Test Championship (WTC) final this week will be played between the two best teams in the world. And that’s as it should be.

Test cricket is a funny beast, however. How do you decide which is the best team in the world when it is difficult to tell which is the best team a country possesses? New Zealand won the final Test and the series after making six changes. Some owing to injury, and some for a reason we shall come to shortly.

Captain and best batsman Kane Williamson decided to rest his elbow and not aggravate the injury ahead of the WTC final. So New Zealand won comfortably with their next-best team.

In Australia earlier, only two Indians, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, played all four Tests. India’s bowling attack in the final Test was possibly their weakest of the series. It wasn’t even their next-best team. Yet India won that Test and with it the series. Their best batsman and captain Virat Kohli had flown back home after the first Test.

Predicting victories in cricket — fraught at the best of times — has just got more difficult. The race is not always to the swift, nor battle to the strong.

New Zealand might think they are strengthening their team for the WTC final with the return of Williamson, B-J. Watling, Tim Southee, and others, but are they really? England might believe that once Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, and Sam Curran make the eleven against India, they have a superior team. But will they?

The pandemic, and possibly the bubble associated with it, is causing us to reassess the apparently obvious. An X-factor has entered the calculations, making it all very exciting. Bench strength is vital. Teams travel now with 24 or more players. They carry their own ‘net’ bowlers (one of them, T. Natarajan made his debut in all three formats in Australia). The competition is tougher, and no player on tour can afford to take his place for granted.

Whatever it is, the manner in which teams have made huge changes from match to match, and still succeeded, is an interesting development. Not yet a trend, but it might graduate into one.

Changes are made for a second reason too, and there might be issues with that. Again, owing to the pandemic, teams have had to rotate their players, ensuring they get sufficient rest and are fresh for each match.

England have made a fetish of this, resting Moeen, Bairstow, Buttler, Curran, and Woakes for the New Zealand series. Woakes had bowled just 21 overs in competition in nine months previously, so ‘rest’ was hardly what he needed.

The rotation policy is lauded as a masterstroke when the team wins, but seen as foolish and counter-productive when it loses. England’s problem was their inflexibility, the refusal to change plans when the IPL was shortened and players flew home, giving themselves more rest than they originally expected to have.

Team priorities

Teams have different priorities too, and the selections are made accordingly. For England, it is the Ashes series at the top followed by International Cricket Council tournaments like the World Cups. The suspicion that they used the New Zealand series as ‘nets’ before the Ashes cannot be shaken away. That is hardly fair to the No. 1 Test team in the world. New Zealand have the right to expect the best team to take them on, for beating a second XI is deeply unsatisfying. But you can only beat the team that turns up.

When Roger Federer pulled out in the middle of the French Open, it seemed as if he was merely testing the waters ahead of Wimbledon to see if his knees could take the strain after surgeries. Federer’s largely unblemished record meant he was given the benefit of the doubt; in any case, the stakes are different in individual sport.

Both New Zealand and India should, and probably will, play their best teams in the WTC final commencing on Friday. A final cannot be a stepping stone to something else.

Lessons from history

History has shown that after India won the 1983 World Cup (50-over), that format got a huge shot in the arm, and drew more people to the game. Similarly post-2007 when India won the World T20, the IPL was born, and the format threatened to take over the game.

If India win the inaugural WTC, perhaps something similar will happen with Test cricket. No pressure at all, Virat Kohli!


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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 9:46:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-race-is-not-always-to-the-swift-nor-the-battle-to-the-strong/article34824937.ece

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