Ben Jones looks back on a Test which demonstrated the best and worst of everyone involved.
The worry of a final is that, given too great a stage, players don’t play to their potential. The scope and weight of the occasion hangs over them and they fall, diminished, into a version of themselves unrecognisable.
While on an individual, qualitative level, this will always be the case to some extent, what this particular final has managed – through adversity and English weather – is showcasing not only the greatness of the players involved, but the quirks and specifics which make them great.
The final day started with a bang; Kyle Jamieson was superb, immediately, emphatically. In the 14 balls he sent down to Virat Kohli, he drew 6 false shots. You are not supposed to be able to do that to Kohli. Nobody is. But that bounce, with balls delivered from such a height that they behave so differently from others in any zone, confuses the best, and it’s what has defined the early stages of Jamieson’s Test career. He can bowl full enough, hitting that classical good length with all the implicit benefits of swing and seam, but keeps the benefits of bowling short in his back pocket. Kohli was cramped by the seam movement, but also the tightness into his body, caused by Jamieson’s skill but also his physical gifts. It wouldn’t have felt right to leave this final without this sort of demonstration.
Speaking of Kohli – he batted out of his crease, again. The move forward to counter James Anderson et al in 2018 is the stuff of legend, and he went with it again today – but unlike many times before, this wasn’t going to be as successful. His interception point in this game was, on average, 2.3m from his stumps – the furthest forward of any batsman. Kohli did Kohli. It would have felt wrong with anything else.
The celebration for the Indian skipper’s wicket was enormous, the sort of unbridled joy you save for a podium rather than the third wicket in a third innings – but that’s the Virat effect. Yet speak to any Australian bowler from the last three years, and they’ll tell you that the celebration of Cheteshwar Pujara’s wicket should be equally intense. Both of India’s landmark overseas wins in recent times have been spearheaded by Pujara’s obstinate solidity, and but for yet more Jamieson brilliance, this could have been the case yet again. Pujara’s battle with himself, constantly contorting around his off stump or wider, refusing to attack, reflected the game situation. Nothing was attacked, nothing was ventured, and ultimately, nothing was gained.
In retrospect, it was this passage – followed by Ajinkya Rahane’s timid legside glance – which lost India the game. It was in this period where scoring slowed and wickets rose, where permutations clarified. Suddenly, India were hanging on, negotiating the barbed equation of overs and runs required to reach safety, and nothing more. Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja were the last line of defence before a weak lower order, and a 9-11 who have contributed fewer runs per Test than any tail in the world for two years. And yet resistance came. Pant was dropped, Jadeja put down roots, and the game began to breathe easy.
Then, after Lunch, Neil Wagner pulled out his calling card, setting Jadeja up with a beautiful spell of intelligent, canny short pitched bowling. 22 deliveries, all pitching short of a good length and largely consisting of genuine bouncers, were fired down consecutively. There were men out on the legside, and plenty of them, luring him into the trap. Wagner banged away, deep into a spell which began well before the interval, and kept the length short. Then the sucker ball – full, but not too full – to draw the shot, the nick, and the wicket.
It was a beautiful spell of textbook Test cricket, which would mean enough in isolation. Add in the journey that Neil Wagner has been on, performing that task day in day out on roads in New Zealand, perfecting the art of the 80mph bouncer, and it was beautifully apt. A Kiwi victory would not have been complete without a Wagner barrage.
Amidst this collapse, it was entirely appropriate that the spanner in the narrative was provided by Rishabh Pant. On a broader level, Pant’s refusal to back down in the Australia series led to both the blockout at Sydney and the chase at the Gabba, so no final could have been reflective of the tournament without some fireworks from the Indian keeper. His counter-attack was entirely in keeping with the style and verve of the young batsman who is taking Test cricket by storm; averaging 48 in the last two years, Pant’s batting is defined by both its unorthodoxy, and the rate of scoring. Only one man (Quinton de Kock) has scored quicker in the last two years, and as Pant sought to drag India to a defendable total – or perhaps only a total that time would defend – he played the full range of front foot pulls, reverse hooks, scoops, and outright slogs. That he eventually managed to top score, before falling to an ugly swipe (and an excellent catch from Henry Nicholls) was entirely appropriate.
Throughout all the chaos, across the entire match, NZ caught their catches brilliantly. Unsurprisingly, really, given that in the last two years nobody has come close to them in slip catching terms. Personnel changes, but the success remains the same, and they completely reflected that in this match. Even Tim Southee’s drops (across this tour) illustrate a broader pattern, his 79% catch percentage the lowest of anyone in the Kiwi cordon. It would have been wrong to have it any other way.
The dismissal of Mohammed Shami – rarely a flagship event on a day of Test cricket – illustrated the best of Kane Williamson’s captaincy. The NZ skipper does not go under-praised (a calm public demeanour does wonders for sportsmen; people will readily fill the vacuum with virtues), but he really is an intuitive, bright captain.
The initial passage, when New Zealand came out to bat and begin the chase, was surprisingly vibrant. Mohammed Shami was, shock, unlucky with the new ball – and we wouldn’t have it any other way. In 2018, he drew more false shots than any other bowler on either side, and yet his place was questioned going into this series. Bad luck is the Shami trademark, and to feel its absence too keenly in this Test would have been wrong.
Ravichandran Ashwin is a magician against all batsmen, but left-handers are his greatest prey. Ashwin’s dismissals of New Zealand’s openers were greater self-portraits than anything you could manage with a paintbrush. For Latham, it was all drop, overspin taking over from drift and deceiving the Kiwi, failing to win the race to the pitch of the ball and making up for it by sprinting back to the dressing room. Conway’s deception was a question of line, and lack of turn. The previous ball turned 3.6 degrees, and would have hit middle; the next turned only 2.0 degrees, but also would have gone on to hit middle. It wouldn’t have been appropriate for a final involving Ashwin to pass without left-handers tormented, one pinned to the crease and one running for cover.
A Ross Taylor nervous start? Sure, if we’re playing the hits, let’s do it properly. Of the 18 batsmen to have played 30+ Test innings batting at number four since 2006, none have a higher false shot percentage in their first 20 balls than Taylor. He is a magnificently bad starter – to manage his Test record while genuinely never looking comfortably in the early stages is brilliant. Today, hopping around the crease against Ashwin and Shami, we saw the real Taylor. Tense, nervous, beautiful.
Alongside him, as always, was Captain Kane. Among the nerves and tension, Williamson stayed cool, doing everything that Williamson always does. In the data era, only Virat Kohli and Steve Smith have recorded a lower false shot percentage than Williamson. He batted deep in his crease, deeper than anyone in the Test. Technique need not always indicate character, but Kane playing late and Kohli standing tall down the track is an elegant demonstration of the men we’re watching. Swagger and patience; equally admirable, entirely opposite.
There were exceptions to this overall rule. Jasprit Bumrah offered little on the scorecard, despite underlying numbers impressing. Ravindra Jadeja was unable to impact the game, with bat or ball. Neither BJ Watling or Henry Nicholls offered their classic lower-order obstinance.
Yet that melted away in the excitement of the winning moment. Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson taking New Zealand over the line for the greatest achievement in their Test history, was almost too poetic. No two batsmen have scored more runs for New Zealand than them, and no pair of batsmen have put on more runs together for the Kiwis in Test cricket. Taylor tearfully accepting the plaudits from an equally emotional Simon Doull was a recognition of the debt this team pay to previous generations, but also the recognition from those previous generations of how good this current NZ side are.
And ultimately, the fact that draws are rare, particularly in England. The Expected Dismissal has been historically low throughout this game, the conditions, Dukes ball, and high quality attacks making batting outrageously difficult. The standard of bowling was high from ball one, through to the final knockings on the final day.
Some of these stories are ones you’ll know. For English audiences, you’re likely far more across the Indian strengths and narratives than the Kiwis’, a quirk of schedules and timezones. For others, perhaps vice versa. But the joy of holding a final of this type is that attention is focused. A festival of cricket, of sorts, with everyone a headline act.
But gloriously, wonderfully, sometimes the final doesn’t reflect the whole. India are, by several empirical measures and a whole heap of subjective ones, a better Test side than New Zealand. Play a five match Test series in these conditions, and you would back India’s quality to come through. In a one-off Test, we see the vibrant chaos of white ball cricket injected into the oldest format, a quiet innovation that makes every ball a spectacle, rather than an exhibition. The best of everything the game has to offer on the widest canvas it can manage. Long, long may it continue.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.