The inaugural edition of the World Test Championship began soon after the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup. When the ICC put forward the concept, there were questions around the complexity of the points system and teams playing an unequal number of Test matches. The league phase of the WTC is now over. The teams that finished at the top of the table are also the number one and two ranked sides in the ICC rankings. If the series that are part of the WTC cycle are not perfect then the ICC rankings are not either.
At the start of the year 2020, India already had one foot in the final. They had three consecutive whitewashes and were well ahead of the rest of the sides. Then came the hiccup. India lost both Tests against New Zealand inside seven playing days. India needed wins against two of the more competitive Test sides – Australia and England – later in the year.
Between India’s tour of New Zealand and the one to Australia, the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world. Due to the pandemic, sporting events dropped like flies. The concept of WTC designed to have each team play three home and three away series needed immediate modification.
This resulted in an abbreviation unheard of in cricket before: PCT. This stands for the ratio between points earned and points contested for. Taking New Zealand’s case: Since they chose to cancel their away tour to Bangladesh, they played five series and contested for 600 points. As they earned 420 of those, their PCT is 70%.
Now, unlike the points system, the percentages are prone to drop if a side plays more game than the others and do not win those. Hence, it added further complications to India’s path to the WTC final.
Let us have a look at how India overcame the odds to step into yet another final of an ICC event-
1) India’s tour of West Indies, 2019
Result- India: 2, WI: 0
In early 2019, West Indies had thumped the touring English side. The expectation was that the pitches will offer seam and bounce as they did against England. It backfired on West Indies. By then, Jasprit Bumrah has an added weapon: the outswinger, in his arsenal. Proving to be unplayable, Bumrah’s back to back five-wicket hauls – including a hattrick - gave India victories by 318 and 257 runs in both Tests. On the batting front, India found Hanuma Vihari who scored a 90 and a 100 in both Tests to help India overcome early jitters.
2) South Africa tour of India, 2019/20
Result- India: 3, SA: 0
This was the series that gave birth to Rohit Sharma the opener. Including a double-ton, he scored three centuries in as many Tests and averaged 132.25. South Africa were (and still are) learning to adapt to life after the retirement of their stalwarts. As Indian pacers outdid their South African counterparts, they beat them comprehensively.
3) Bangladesh tour of India, 2019/20
Result- India: 2, Bangladesh: 0
By now, India was unanimously the toughest place to tour. Bangladesh proved to be a mere pushovers. India beat them by an innings in both Tests. The only memorable aspect of this series was India’s first-ever pink-ball Test. The ball swung prodigiously and Virat Kohli took it upon himself to produce a masterclass to see his side through. India were at 360 points on the table. 100% as per the current PCT system.
4) India tour of New Zealand, 2020
Result- India: 0, New Zealand: 2
This tour derailed India’s journey to the WTC final for the time being. Indian batsmen failed to stand up to the challenging damp conditions. Kohli himself averaged 9.5 across two Tests, his lowest ever in a series away from home. India’s next-gen pace battery did keep them in the hunt but runs by New Zealand’s lower-order batsmen proved to be the difference between the two sides.
New Zealand went on to whitewash West Indies and Pakistan at home. This resulted in them becoming the first side to seal a spot in the WTC final.
5) India tour of Australia, 2020/21
Result- India: 2, Australia: 1
The first Test in Adelaide was India’s second pink-ball Test. On the third day, Australia dismissed India for 36 their lowest-ever Test score. India’s reputation took a hit. WTC final wasn’t even part of the discussion.
On the back of a hundred from the stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane and sloppy fielding by Australia, India came back strongly to register a win in the second Test. Due to the rivalry between the two sides, the focus continued to be on the immediate objective of winning the series.
Then came the Test in Sydney. Australia were ahead for the first four days. The fifth day saw heroics from India’s middle and lower order. They salvaged a draw to leave Australia frustrated. When the caravan moved to Brisbane, the WTC conversations surfaced again. India needed a result in their favour to keep their hopes alive.
India went on to register a memorable win in the fourth Test. The WTC final was in sight again.
6) England tour of India, 2021
Result- India: 3, England: 1
Ahead of this series, India had a clear objective. Win the series 2-1 or better to seal a place for the final. It proved to be a bumpy ride to start with.
England registered a comfortable win in the first Test to sow doubts into India’s chances. England had to beat India 3-1 for qualification. After cancelling their tour to Bangladesh and South Africa, Australia had an eye on this series themselves. They were dependent on narrower win margins or a drawn series.
Thanks to India’s dominance against spin, they blew away the English batsmen in the remainder of the series. Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel proved too hot to handle for the visitors. Rohit stood tall in the last three Tests. Rishabh Pant and Washington Sundar made crucial contributions in the last one.
In the end, India and England were the only two sides to complete the entire six series cycle. They were also the only two sides to win two away series. As the situation would have it, New Zealand sneaked through without a single away Test series victory. Nonetheless, the final is between the top two ranked sides in the world, as it should be.