New Zealand robbed of home victory parade but WTC is worth celebrating

The pandemic robbed New Zealand of a much-deserved victory parade on arrival in Auckland on Saturday morning. Instead, the World Test Championship mace will spend the next 14 days in a hotel room with BJ Watling while the team undergo quarantine.

With the captain, Kane Williamson, staying behind in England to play in the Hundred, Watling was a fitting choice as its custodian, the now retired wicketkeeper having truly embodied their understated, team-first culture. Zoom calls and room service are no substitute for ticker tape and fans, of course, although the afterglow from their victory over India – and the final as a whole – feels scarcely diminished.

Certainly the image of Williamson offering a typically calm punch of the gloves to Ross Taylor after his old mate had struck the winning runs will live long in the memory, so, too, Virat Kohli magnanimously embracing his opposite number (while doubtless seething inside).

The match tried our patience like a tired toddler but, in between its tantrums of rain and bad light, also showcased the very best of Test cricket.

The Dukes ball dominated bat, runs were at a premium and it wasn’t until the sixth morning, when Kyle Jamieson wiped out Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, that one side finally blinked. New Zealand’s marvellous new siege weapon was named man of the match, even if Williamson’s five-hour 49 in the first innings, and 52 not out in the chase, were probably worth double in the circumstances.

What now for the competition itself? It was riddled with imperfections even before its inaugural cycle sailed into the storm of Covid-19 and required a revision of the points system after a number of cancellations. Yet, much like Test cricket over the past 144 years, it proved hardy enough to survive and, judging by the reaction to New Zealand’s triumph, looks to have a future, too.

The International Cricket Council is ready to go again, with India’s five-Test series in England from 4 August down as the first of the next two-year cycle. One fancies the defeat will only serve to harden India’s resolve further (even if the captain’s desire for a three-Test final feels unlikely to be granted by boards that prefer to flood the calendar with franchise leagues).

After all, when the ICC began mapping out the calendar for the 2023-2031 period and asked its members for their priorities, India’s reply came back that victory for its men in the WTC sat among its top goals. Much like Kapil Dev’s side toppling West Indies at Lord’s to win the World Cup in 1983 or MS Dhoni’s young thrusters claiming the inaugural World T20 in 2007, it could be something that truly supercharges the competition.

But in its own way New Zealand’s victory was perhaps the ideal result for the inaugural WTC (and not simply for English onlookers suffering residual guilt from Lord’s two years ago). Here was the smallest Test nation by way of population showing that, even with the landscape tilted heavily in favour of India, Australia and England, a well-drilled team galvanised by a common purpose can still prevail.

Many of the imperfections remain in the next cycle. The nine competing teams will still play three series at home and three away during the two-year period, with points percentage deciding a league table that will doubtless lead to heads being scratched. Three sides – Ireland, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe – remain frozen out and may wonder if they are Test nations at all.

The next final is slated to return to the UK in the summer of 2023 and this will probably lead to eyes rolling in some parts of the world. While it is only right Test cricket’s showpiece moves around the globe in time – Australia versus Pakistan in Barbados, anyone? – the talk among ICC executives is that Lord’s will play host in two year’s time.

The Rose Bowl was a necessity – kudos to Hampshire for creating cricket’s gold-standard biosecure bubble – but the appeal of Lord’s next time is understandable. Its prestige is a huge draw and, as shown during the 2019 World Cup, and even by the restricted crowd in Southampton that had Indian fans dominating but about 300 New Zealanders in full voice come the end, the UK’s diverse population also offers the best chance of the stands being full regardless of which two teams are competing. And a final really should be a sellout.

The hope is that having seen New Zealand’s fairytale rise play out, and with the Home of Cricket a tantalising extra incentive, other Test teams are inspired to follow suit and their boards market the competition more than they have done to date (England, where Test cricket pays the bills yet all resources are being pumped into the Hundred, we’re looking at you here).

The Test rankings remain in place and will be the yardstick for many, while series such as the Ashes will continue to carry their own special allure. But with a bit more love and nurturing the WTC could yet create a long, lasting narrative that binds supporters around the world and becomes something every Test cricketer dreams of winning.

Watling, set to spend the first fortnight of his well-earned retirement with the mace for company, will doubtless tell them it feels pretty damn good.