New Zealand emerged worthy champions in the first ever World Test Championships (WTC), defeating India by eight wickets in the final. This win will go some way to wipe off the disappointment that the Kiwi fans would have felt after their narrow loss to England in the ICC World Cup final two years ago. Though the WTC has not developed the charm and popularity of the ODI World Cup, this victory, in effect, crowns New Zealand as the top Test team in contemporary cricket. Critics are unanimous in their opinion that is just reward for the professionalism and teamwork displayed by this hardworking and universally popular side during the last few years. The fact that they are led by Kane Williamson, one of the greatest gentlemen that the game has seen, takes away to some extent the disappointment felt by the followers of game in India.
When the play was in progress on the final day, a friend posed this question on one of the social media platforms - “has India ever won a crucial match against New Zealand?”. This was an interesting query as India’s record against the Kiwis in the knockout stages of international tournaments is definitely not an inspiring one. Even though the Indian fans consider New Zealand as a side placed below them in the pecking order, history conveys the hard truth is that they have got the better of us in critical games consistently. In addition to the defeat in the semifinals of the 2019 ICC World Cup, which still brings waves of disappointment all around, there are losses in the first two editions of this championship in 1975 and 1979, when the Kiwis snuffed out India’s hopes of reaching the semifinal stage. During those days, when our ambitions were limited to qualifying for the last four stage, the games against New Zealand were indeed critical ones, despite they being played in the league phase and these defeats had rankled badly.
The only instance when India defeated New Zealand in a knockout match of an international championship was in February, 1985, when the two sides met in the semifinals of the World Championship of Cricket held in Australia to commemorate the 150th anniversary of European settlement in the Victoria state of Australia. India reached the semifinals topping their pool defeating Australia, Pakistan and England while New Zealand had finished second to the West Indies in their pool. The game was played as a day-night match at the Sydney Cricket Ground. India were led by Sunil Gavaskar, who had announced about stepping down from captaincy after the championship, while Geoff Howarth was the captain of New Zealand.
India won the toss and elected to field. Kapil Dev, who was having an excellent tournament, struck in his very first over sending back John Wright for a duck. Roger Binny and Madan Lal also got into the act dismissing Paul McEwan and Martin Crowe respectively, while Howarth was run out, when Kapil picked up a ball on the run and sent a rocket like return to wicketkeeper Sadanand Viswanath. At 69/4 after 20 overs, the Kiwis were in deep trouble.
John Reid and Jeremy Coney steadied the innings with a 50- run stand but Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Ravi Shastri, the Indian spinners, bottled up the flow of runs. The bowling was so tight that at one stage no boundaries were struck for 19 overs. When Reid tried to open out after reaching his half-century, he was caught by Kapil off Shastri, who snared Coney and Richard Hadlee in quick succession soon after. At this stage when it appeared that India might dismiss New Zealand for a total in the range of 160-180, but Lance Cairns and Ian Smith decided to go after the bowling. They threw their bats at everything and ran like hares between the wickets to push the score towards 200. In the last over bowled by Madan Lal, Cairns was dropped twice by K Srikkanth at deep midwicket, with the ball crossing the boundary on both occasions. Gavaskar was visibly annoyed by this and moved Srikkanth to deep square leg but the ball followed him there as Cairns struck the next one high in the air into that area. This time Srikkanth did not make a mistake and Madan Lal brought the New Zealand innings to a close with one more wicket.
The final score of 206 made by New Zealand was certainly a fighting total during those days when targets in excess of 200 were considered to be difficult ones. Srikkanth and Shastri, the Indian opening batsmen, saw off the first spell of Hadlee but the former was caught in the deep off Ewan Chatfield with the score at 28. Mohammad Azharuddin joined Shastri but the batsmen were placed under a tight leash by the Kiwi bowlers who bowled to a plan and prevented any easy runs. Only 17 runs came between the 11th and 20th overs and India could reach score of only 46 when the 21st over began. Azharuddin started hitting out in desperation and finally holed out to Coney in the 25th over, with the score at 73.
Vengsarkar came in next but he also could not get the scoreboard moving as the Kiwi fielders backed their bowlers to the hilt with their agile and alert work, making the batsmen sweat for even singles. Skipper Howarth marshalled his resources brilliantly, shuffling his attack with aplomb and placing his fielders with pinpoint precision. After Shastri completed his fifty and Indian total crossed 100 runs, he brought on Hadlee for his second spell. Hadlee struck immediately getting Shastri caught at point by McEwan, thus justifying the move of his captain.
When Shastri made his way back to the pavilion, India needed 105 runs in 18 overs, which would appear like child’s play today. But this target should be seen in the light of the fact that they could score only 102 runs in 32 overs till then. New Zealand bowlers certainly held the upper hand and Indian innings appeared to be heading for a meltdown. At this juncture, with the fate of the tie in the balance, Gavaskar changed the batting order and sent Kapil to the middle, in an attempt to wrest the initiative from the Kiwi bowlers.
Kapil started with a couple of streaky shots but soon found his groove by driving Hadlee crisply to the fence in the 34th over. Gavaskar had written in his book “One Day Wonders” that the Indian dressing room was tense when Kapil started middling the ball. Ashok Malhotra, a teammate of Kapil in Haryana side, voiced the apprehensions of the other members of the side when he said, “hope he does not do anything silly now.”
Hadlee ran in and bowled a cleverly disguised slower ball. Kapil, on a high, launched into a drive and ended up playing too early thus spooning the ball up in the direction of mid off for a straight forward catch. However, John Reid, the fielder stationed there, dropped the sitter much to the relief of Indian fans.
This dropped catch proved to be the turning point as Kapil celebrated the reprieve with a cracking drive through extra cover. Vengsarkar too joined the fun as 17 runs came off that over from Hadlee. With this, the equation came down to 72 runs off 16 overs and tide started to turn in favour of the Indians. Both Kapil and Vengsarkar gave a spectacular display of attacking batsmanship to reach the target in the 44th over, without any more wicket being lost.
The scoreboard shows that India won the match by 7 wickets with more than six overs to spare. But, in reality, the game was closely fought and New Zealand even held the upper hand till Kapil came and launched his blitzkreig. Many of the fans who watched this game, including this writer, felt that Kapil deserved the man-of-the-match award for his all round contribution, which was the real difference between the two sides. However, the adjudicators decided to award it to Shastri, probably on account of his splendid bowling through the middle overs.
India won the championship by defeating Pakistan by eight wickets in a one-sided final. It was the semifinal against New Zealand that challenged the Indians the most and in the final analysis the catch dropped by Reid proved to be crucial for the Kiwis.
New Zealand is a side that has displayed an amazing ability to punch above their weight in international championships. It was indeed a bit of a disappointment that they did not have many trophies to show for their performances till now except a win in Champions Trophy more than two decades ago. Their loss to England in 2019 was heartbreaking as the consensus among followers of the game was that they deserved to be the winners. The win at Southampton over India last week was a well deserved one for this often underrated yet highly competitive side who play the game hard without resorting to theatrics and gamesmanship. As Prime Minister Jacinda Arden put it succinctly in her letter addressed to Williamson, this was a “masterful performance… by a brilliant and humble squad”.
Three cheers to captain Williamson and his band of spirited cricketers!
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)