India have been playing what they are calling an “intra-squad match simulation” at the Ageas Bowl, the highlight of which appears to be an unbeaten 121 from 94 balls by the ever-electric Rishabh Pant against an attack featuring Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Siraj.
Any squad led by Virat Kohli is unlikely to have gone through the motions – you fancy India’s captain would bring his burning intensity to a friendly game of KerPlunk – and they will certainly be more familiar with life in Southampton’s bio-bubble before the World Test Championship final that starts on Friday. India are No 1 for good reason and boast some serious resources at present.
But it’s hard not to agree with Ravichandran Ashwin when he says New Zealand will head into the showpiece with a distinct advantage. The tourists have extracted maximum value from their time in England to the point where, after charging through their hosts on day three at Edgbaston like Jonah Lomu trampling over Mike Catt in 1995, they are close to a first series win here since 1999. All this, despite swapping out six players from a dominant draw at Lord’s.
They often say a decent way to judge a team is to look at those on the fringes. India’s series victory in Australia at the start of the year was built on bench strength but New Zealand are none too shabby in that department either. Take Matt Henry, who, with Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson rested, and Trent Boult building up to the big one on his return here, may well return to preparing the drinks.
That would be tough on Henry who has gone some way to redressing a previous Test bowling average of 51 from 13 caps that, for Kent supporters if no one else, has been baffling. The 29-year-old feels almost a classical English seamer who just happened to be born in Christchurch – granted, not always a blockade to England honours when considering Ben Stokes and Andy Caddick – but has found chances fleeting and the Kookaburra ball disobliging.
Armed with a Dukes during his latest drop-in appearance Henry has been impeccable, following up three wickets in England’s first innings by knocking over their top three either side of tea on the third day. Rory Burns will rue the shot, Dom Sibley the angle of his bat and Zak Crawley a complete loss of form, but it was still a wonderfully probing new ball display from a perennial understudy.
Backing this up was the indefatigable Neil Wagner, another not guaranteed to make the final (if we are reading the runes correctly) and yet such a vital component of the attack that has helped New Zealand reach this point. When he dismissed the two supposed wonderkids in Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence and nearly popped a blood vessel in celebration, you wondered who would have the guts to tell him.
Henry’s success against the two openers, and the acrobatic effort by the stand-in captain, Tom Latham, to remove Burns, also highlighted another feature of New Zealand’s cricket: a wonderfully adhesive slip cordon. Since the start of 2019 they have held 91% of catches sent in this direction to sit top of the Test nations; England, by comparison, have put down a quarter of theirs during the same period.
Then there is the batting, which again in contrast to England has settled on the bizarrely old-school method of playing straight. Kane Williamson has been missing with a sore elbow for the game and yet up stepped Will Young at No 3, in form after a spell at Durham, to deliver 82 runs across five hours that, while afforded a life on seven, was enviable in its simplicity.
Devon Conway, meanwhile, appears to be the final piece in the jigsaw. Granted he has grooved his game over the course of a nomadic career but that final step up to international cricket should, in theory, remain a big one. Yet the left-hander has played with such remarkable assuredness for his 303 runs that even the ever-calculating Stuart Broad has admitted he remains short on ideas.
While egos are light in this New Zealand collective and therefore unlikely to swell, all of the above threatens to jinx them before the final push. It should also be qualified by a callow England side that appears to be the product of overthinking and an unhealthy obsession with challenges further down the line.
Nevertheless, provided Williamson’s elbow recovers and BJ Watling’s back does the same (not that the stand-in wicketkeeper, Tom Blundell, has not been the best on show in Birmingham), they could scarcely have wished for better preparation.