The Kiwis have shown that you don’t have to be overly aggressive, insensitive or abusive to win cricket matches
In boxing it is said that the big guy will always beat the small guy. Luckily that is not true of all sports (actually, it’s not even true in boxing, but that’s a convenient belief), or a small country with limited resources where cricket is not even the most important sport would not be the World champions in Test cricket.
India, 11 times larger in area than New Zealand, with GDP 13 times greater (World Bank figures, 2019) and population 260 times more, also have the richest cricket board in the world and a larger pool to choose from. The World Test Championship (WTC) was a reminder that whatever your strengths outside the field, only 11 players can play, and New Zealand’s 11 were better than India’s on those rain-affected days.
Hard but fair
Australians like to think of themselves as a team that plays hard but fair; recent events have shown, however, that that is only half true. It is New Zealand who play that way, their fairness including a cloak of decency that often confuses opponents who are forced to behave more decently towards them than they would against other teams. That is often the way. The better behaved get their opponents to behave better too.
Some years after New Zealand formally decided that they would not sledge their opponents, Australia’s then coach Darren Lehmann said his team ought to adopt such a policy. It did not last (if it ever began), but it was an interesting development. During the 2015 World Cup final, Australia’s wicketkeeper Brad Haddin sledged New Zealand because, he said, they made him “uncomfortable” with their “nice attitudes” in the tournament.
In the last few years, New Zealand have shown that you don’t have to be overly aggressive, insensitive or abusive to win cricket matches. This attitude has made them everybody’s second favourite side across the world, and the neutrals’ favourite. They have set such high standards that if a fielder coughs out of turn, it might be interpreted as poor behaviour!
But civility and graciousness are only one aspect of their game, and that alone isn’t guaranteed to win matches. For that you need a team that has the talent and the toughness — Kane Williamson is a good example — to take the battle to the enemy. You can be tough without being boorish, an important lesson for India who might have been the superior side even in English conditions, but looked like a team over-reliant on one or two players.
The result was important, however. If one of the aims of the WTC was to attract new fans to the greatest version of the game, then a draw might have turned many away. Fans deal increasingly in black and white, either and or, and when two teams contesting over five days (six, in this case owing to the rain) come away with a draw, it can be both confusing and distancing. It didn’t matter who won so long as one team did; even if for long stretches it did appear as if neither team would.
Did the WTC work? The pandemic meant last-minute rule changes. Percentage of points, not total points, was taken into account, a reckoning that will stay in place for the next cycle ending in 2023. That we finally had a championship with all its flaws, its lack of enthusiasm for many years since it was first mooted in the 1990s, its criticisms even as it progressed must count as a success of sorts.
Change in format
Virat Kohli thinks the final ought to be a three-Test series, and there’s something to be said for that even if it means loosening the tight calendar a bit. Teams in the fray might have to keep some weeks free not knowing whether they might make it to the final. This year, for example, Australia were in the running till they lost four points for falling two overs short in the Boxing Day Test against India and also missing a tour of South Africa.
There is call for including all 12 Test-playing countries, dividing them into groups with perhaps promotions and delegations. This will not affect bilateral series which are decided by the respective boards anyway.
A four-year cycle will give teams more breathing space, and provide the proper authority. The two-year cycle is fine for T20, but Test cricket deserves a longer stretch, in keeping with the nature of the format.
To be fair, the artificial world around sport during the pandemic distorted cricket’s long-awaited innovation. Many of the expected certainties wobbled in this uncertain world.
The greatest success of the WTC — apart from New Zealand’s triumph — was that it was played to a finish, and a champion side emerged. We will get a better understanding when all the elements are in place in the next cycle.