Former Indian batsman VVS Laxman feels even though New Zealand will be more acclimatised to the English conditions ahead of the World Test Championship final, it will be Virat Kohli and Co. who will start as favourites. The Indian players too have reached Southampton, which will host the finale from June 18.
"I believe that both teams are evenly matched. I believe that because this is a one-off match - and not a series - whichever team bats well in the first innings, will have the edge and that side will dictate the terms throughout the match. Both the teams are good, but I think India will start as favourites because of the way the Indian team has played - not only over the last couple of years, but over a period of time," Laxman told Sportstar.
"They have embraced the challenges and have overcome whatever obstacles they faced - as recently as the Australia series - and there's a lot of talent and depth in this Indian line-up. But having said that, since it’s a one-off match, I feel whichever team bats well in the first innings will hold the ace.
The Black Caps are currently involved in a two-Test series against England and Laxman thinks it will give them some advantage. "Well, theoretically, that's an advantage for New Zealand, because whenever you play any Test match in overseas conditions, you at least would like to play one - if not two - (practice) matches before the main match. There’s no doubt it helps you to get acclimatised to the conditions. That’s always been the norm for so many years. Especially for the batsmen, it will take time to get used to the new conditions.
"But India has not taken a backward step, irrespective of whatever challenges they have faced. The series win in Australia was a testament to their character and their positive mindset. I have never seen a bigger challenge for any team like the Indian team faced in Australia, where they lost the first Test after being bowled out for 36, and their regular captain (Virat Kohli) was not available for the remaining matches.
"All the senior players started getting injured one after the other and then you had the almost second-string Indian team taking on a mighty Australian team in its backyard. Irrespective of all the challenges, they went on to win the series in such an emphatic manner! So, even though theoretically, New Zealand - who is already accustomed to the English conditions - may have the advantage, I am sure the Indian team will maybe have intense training sessions before the final."
The 46-year-old, who played 134 Tests and 86 ODIs for India and scored over 11,000 international runs, also heaped heavy praise on Kohli and Kane Williamson. "Well, I don't think that there is a competition between Kane and Virat. Rather, there is a lot of mutual respect and admiration. Both of them are true role models, who have become an inspiration for the younger generation - not only in their country, but all over the world.
"The way they have led their respective sides, the way they have optimised their potential and talent (is incredible). They have been instrumental in taking their team forward. Kane was instrumental in the smooth transition of the New Zealand team after Brendon McCullum and senior players of that side retired. It was similar for Virat. Both of them take a lot of pride in playing the game of cricket. It does not matter if they are playing for their country or in the IPL or club cricket, the way they prepare for each and every match is (incredible).
"It’s a great opportunity for both New Zealand and India because this inaugural final will always be remembered. We still remember MS Dhoni’s T20 Indian side because they won the 2007 inaugural T20 World Cup. I still remember Kapil (Dev) paaji lifting the World Cup because that was the first time an Indian team won the World Cup. This is the first time we are having the World Test Championship, it’s a great opportunity for both the teams to become the first side to win the trophy. I believe that is what both sides will be focussing on."
Laxman also suggested a couple of tweaks that the ICC could make ahead of the next World Test Championship cycle. "I also feel overseas Test wins should be rewarded a lot more than winning at home. So, there is definitely a lot of disparity and that’s one area the ICC surely needs to look into. Also, the number of matches or the series each country plays has to be the same. If some country plays a lot more matches than the other or plays less and still gets to qualify - that’s not right.
Indian cricketers have a packed schedule over the next six months and Laxman feels it will be difficult to manage the workload of the players. "I definitely feel that rotation policy is critical going forward, at least till the time the pandemic is on. It is never easy to be part of the quarantine and especially, if you are not doing well as a team or a player, then it becomes tougher because there is no chance for a player to mentally refresh or rejuvenate himself.
"Rotation policy will be very critical not only to look after the physical fatigue but also the mental fatigue of a player. Unlike some other countries, India has a very good bench strength, so India can focus on rotating the players till the time our battle against the pandemic is on."
Talking about the domestic cricket, Laxman wants the BCCI to take care of all the players and compensate them in these hard times. "I definitely feel that compensation has to be made to these players. In the past, a lot of players used to have good jobs in a central or State government organisation or private companies. Unfortunately, now the jobs that the players are getting are very scarce. A lot of them have taken up cricket as a professional sport, it is no longer an amateur sport.
"The moment professionalism comes, it means they have to get paid and unfortunately last year, because of the pandemic, some of them were not paid like they would if the entire season would have taken place. I believe there should be some kind of a package which should be worked out by the BCCI for cricketers, especially the first-class cricketers, who don’t play the IPL, who don’t get to play international cricket. I think it's very important to look after them.
"I still feel, and I have been telling this for a long time, that first-class cricketers should get contracts from their State Associations keeping in mind that they are sacrificing everything and they are dedicating themselves to this game. It is very important that a contract is handed over because what happens to a player if he suddenly gets injured? Suddenly there is no income for that player and if that player doesn’t have a job then how is he going to look after himself and his family?"