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  5. WTC Final | Conway and Southee set alarm bells ringing in Indian camp, Kohli and Co search for answers

WTC Final | Conway and Southee set alarm bells ringing in Indian camp, Kohli and Co search for answers

The much-awaited WTC final, scheduled to be played from June 18 at the Ageas Bowl, will be a repeat of the 2019 World Cup semi-final where New Zealand had registered an 18-run win

Ameya Barve Ameya Barve @ameya_2112
New Delhi Updated on: June 08, 2021 18:00 IST
India skipper Virat Kohli
Image Source : PTI

India skipper Virat Kohli

In a monotonous third session when England needed 140 odd runs off the last 20 overs, the hosts chose to play it safe as they recorded a draw against New Zealand on the final day of the first Test at Lord's. Chasing 273 in the rain-marred clash, Dom Sibley dropped anchor, scoring unbeaten 60 from 207 deliveries as they battled for a draw instead of risking a chase. 

Earlier in the day, Kiwi spearhead Kane Williamson declared on 169/6, rekindling hopes of thousands of fans at the 'home of cricket' who were in fear of witnessing a mundane contest between two world-class sides. A cautious approach and early blows pegged England back as skipper Joe Root decided to not show any sort of appetite to attack. A lowly scorecard was the end result as both sides shook hands after over six hours of English batsmen safeguarding their innings. 

On the return of spectators to Test cricket in England, there emerged some heroes too. It started with Devon Conway scoring a magnificent double century before Tim Southee took charge. The Kiwi paceman led New Zealand’s attack with 6-43, place on the Lord’s honors board after his 10-wicket haul in 2013.

Neil Wagner and Kyle Jamieson looked impressive too as the Kiwis tightened the noose on English batsmen. With Trent Boult ready to join the bowling set-up, the BlackCaps bowling attack looks better than ever, especially when the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) final is just days away. 

The WTC final, scheduled to be played from June 18 at the Ageas Bowl, will be a repeat of the 2019 World Cup semi-final where New Zealand had registered an 18-run win in a rain-marred encounter. While the New Zealand pace attack looks a formidable one, the Indian batting guns, led by skipper Virat Kohli himself, will put themselves on the line in Southampton. However, Kohli and Co. need to address a few issues too. 

Pujara's dry patch

Cheteshwar Pujara has been a rock-solid pillar of India's Test setup. In 85 Tests, Pujara has scored 6244 runs at an average of 46.59 with 18 centuries and 29 half-centuries under his belt. Known for his defensive abilities and resilience, the No.3 batsman's numbers indicate the impact he has had in the traditional format. 

But the flow of runs seems to have tapered off, especially since the start of the World Test Championship (WTC) cycle. The Saurashtra batsman has scored just 818 runs in 17 Tests since August 2019 at a poor average of 29.21.

Pujara averages just 29.41 with 500 runs from 9 Tests in England and India would want him to improve the record in the four-month long gruelling tour. 

Gill or Mayank? 

Rohit Sharma has played only one Test in England in the past but it's his experience and batting ability that make him India's first-choice opener for the WTC Final. While Rohit has secured the opening position in the Test set-up, the team management is searching for a stable option at the top. Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal.

Agarwal was sidelined from the Test combination after two failures against Australia. Gill, his replacement, shone Down Under but floundered in the subsequent Test series against England at home. Gill was also poor in the recently-postponed IPL, raising questions over his inclusion for the summit clash against New Zealand. 

Gill would make the cut if the team management trusts the youngster to play a Gabba-like innings in Southampton. Technically sound Agarwal, on the other hand, can be roped in if the Indian team wants a disciplined opener in English conditions.

Kohli's ton drought

Indian spearhead Virat Kohli also has to lay the ghost of 'century drought' to rest. Kohli, arguably among the best modern-day batsmen, has not got hold of an international ton since November 2019 -- the longest he has gone without scoring the three-figure mark. 

The prolific batter may have got 70 international hundreds under his belt, but a lean patch featuring not a single 100 has got people talking, especially when India hasn't got hold of an ICC trophy under his leadership. 

Surprisingly, Kohli's last ODI hundred was against West Indies back in August 2019. Kohli, who will be touring England for the third time in his illustrious career, has stopped looking at series as 'ultimate goals'.

"If in 2014, you would have told me that in 2021 I'm going to play the WTC final, I would have had a tough time believing that. I have stopped looking at series as ultimate tasks or goals. It's about leading the team in the right way," Kohli had said in a presser before the team's departure for England. 

"I don't think the mindset has changed at all. The mindset was always to go out there and perform. I only see it (the previous tours) as an evolution of my position in the team."

Rahane's battle with consistency

Ajinkya Rahane might be India's leading run-scorer in the ongoing cycle of the World Test Championship, but he's been struggling fo find consistency. After a splendid ton against Australia in Melbourne earlier this year, the Mumbaikar has registered four single-digit scores. 

Rahane, who led India to glory in the Border-Gavaskar trophy, has managed to score just 380 runs in the last eight Test -- a record that doesn't justify his batting prowess. 

Former India chief selector MSK Prasad also believes Rahane can rise to the occasion when it matters the most. A series win Down Under and performance against Australia will help the Indian vice-captain in getting the mojo back.

He is a wonderful team-man and everybody likes him a lot. Whenever Virat hasn’t played a big inning, this man has stepped up. We must not forget how he delivered as a captain and a player in Australia when many seniors were absent," Prasad said in an interview with cricket.com.

Bumrah, Shami in English conditions

Jasprit Bumrah has played only nine Tests for India so far in the World Test Championship but has managed to pluck an impressive 34 wickets. Bumrah played only three Tests against Australia in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2020-21 where he scalped 11 wickets before missing the final Test due to injury. 

Against England, he played two Tests and returned with four wickets before taking a break for his wedding. The Mumbai Indians bowler will be crucial to India's chances against New Zealand, especially in English conditions.

Bumrah is just into his third year in Test cricket and will eye success in England. Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, and Umesh Yadav will also team up with Bumrah as the Indian pace force looks arguably the best at present.

Seasoned pacer Shami also has a point to prove. He has played 8 Tests in England so far, 3 in 2014 and 5 in 2018. The pacer picked up 16 wickets in five Tests in 2018 but his first England tour was mediocre. He managed to pluck only 5 wickets at an average of 73.

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