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Close-in: June - an auspicious start of summer in England for Indian cricket
Mumbai, May 14, 2021
The famous quote by Jean Hersey, "June is the gateway to summer" is perfect as regards Indian cricket teams that tour England. India's first ever Test match was played at Lord's, London, on June 25, 1932. On that very date 51 years later, India won the World Cup at the same venue.
These two landmark moments are etched in the history of Indian cricket, both achieved in England at the start of the summer in June.
The final of the inaugural edition of the ICC World Test Championship (WTC) is to be held at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Southampton in England from June 18. India should look at it as a lucky omen, as June 2021 could just be the crowning glory for Indian cricket, if they lift the trophy and become the official Test cricket champions. It would be a glorious moment for Indian cricket after 89 years of playing the longest format.
The concept of a Test championship is a terrific initiative of the ICC. The pure and conventional form of the game needed a boost. Although arranging matches in an already approved cricket calendar was a major issue, both India and New Zealand, the finalists at present look to be the two best Test teams in the world.
The issue that one is concerned about is the weather. In June, rain could be a spoilsport. The ICC has earmarked an extra day for the WTC final for that purpose. They could have quite easily decided to increase it further to ensure five days of cricket. A draw would result in both teams sharing the trophy, an outcome that is considered "fuddy duddy" in the modern world that believes in a result and a winner.
The ideal way would have been for the team that qualified with the maximum points to be adjudged the winner if the result is a draw. This would then require the team with less number of points to go for a win. Alternatively, a three-match series would have been the perfect setting. If drawn then the team with the better aggregate of points in the league stage should be the winner.
New Zealand, having beaten India comprehensively in the 2-match Test series in New Zealand in 2019, must fancy their chances. The June weather conditions in England may be very similar and so New Zealand will feel they have that psychological edge over India as well. Another additional advantage that the Kiwis have is that they will be playing a 2-Test match series versus England before the Test Championship. This would give their players an opportunity to get acclimatized and also the team management to zero in on their playing eleven.
On the other hand, the abrupt end to the IPL has given Indian selected players that extra time for them to recover and recoup from the treacherous bio-secured bubble and the fatigue of the workload of cricket that they have been subjected to in the last six months. However, the escalating spread of the dreaded virus and the lockdowns in India may result in many of the players being cocooned indoors.
To get into top physical and mental fitness may become a challenge for many of them. Keeping in the groove is very important in a sportsman's life and three weeks of idleness could put one back quite a bit. Indian players do plan to assemble in the first week of June and in England play a few practice matches amongst themselves. This may look acceptable in relation to the long England tour that India will undertake immediately after the WTC, but for the prize fight it may be inadequate.
India has faltered in the first Test matches that they played overseas in recent years and even in the last series at home against England. This shows that the Indian players need time to acclimatise and adjust to the conditions.
Indian batting is blessed with a few exceptional stroke players and for them, they need to get comfortable with the playing surface to be at their prime form. Similarly, both spin and the pace bowlers will need to get used to the conditions as well as with the Dukes brand ball used in England.
The Indian batting does look superior to New Zealand on paper. However, the Kiwis would have an upper hand after having played the two-Test matches before they take on India.
The pace bowling of both the sides stand tall and the deciding factor will be the fielding, especially in the slip cordon.
India have a very peculiar problem and that is to select the playing XI. The batting with Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Rishabh Pant make up the top six. And after adding three pacers in Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, and Ishant Sharma, India are left with two slots to fill.
The challenge would be as to who from the two spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel, who championed the side to victory in the last Test series against England or from the all-round performances displayed by Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar, would make the cut. Adding to their selection 'problem' is India's leading all-rounder at present, Ravindra Jadeja, back from an injury. One can also not overlook Mohammed Siraj who spearheaded India's pace attack in the last Test match in Australia.
The plethora of choice is what the rest of the cricketing world is in awe of as regards Indian cricket. The onus of selecting the final XI on the tour will be on the head of the Indian tour management and their think tank of the coach, captain and vice-captain with inputs from the support staff. It's a task that will only be appreciated when Virat Kohli lifts the inaugural WTC trophy. After all in this case, one swallow will make the summer for Indian cricket!
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Test cricketer. Views expressed are personal)