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Power Shift, What Power Shift? This is Just a Casual Venue Shift

At first look the shifting of venue of the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) final from Lord’s to the Rose Bowl may seem innocuous, provoked perhaps by a perceived advantage it may have given New Zealand. The idea that it is now advantageous for India isn’t too strong either. Largely, though, this reiterates the eternal truth — What BCCI wants, BCCI gets.
Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli: The ICC World Test Championship final

ICC World Test Championship Final: New Zealand cricket team skipper Kane Williamson and Indian captain Virat Kohli (Pic: Instagram, Kohli).

The final of the inaugural World Test championships (WTC) has been shifted from the historic Lord’s to the Rose Bowl (Ageas Bowl) in Southampton. The shift in venue — and the way it was confirmed to the world — is indicative of the many changes the game has seen over the years, some because of the pandemic and others induced by a shift in power and economic dynamics in the game.

India, who made it to the summit clash after seeing off England on less-than-ideal pitches at the Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad, will play New Zealand in the WTC final from June 18 to 22. The news was confirmed on Monday by none other than Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president Sourav Ganguly. 

There is something amiss here though. Shouldn’t the news or decision of a venue shift of the final come from the International Cricket Council (ICC), or the hosts, the English and Wales Cricket Board (ECB)?

Ganguly, the head of the national board of one of the finalists, should not be the one breaking the news. On paper (at the least), the WTC is still an ICC tournament. Or has the world body handed over the rights of the tournament to the Indian board, and appointed its president as the official spokesperson?

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The break in protocol, if at all cricket has such protocols, is indicative of the powerlessness of the ICC in front of the biggest and richest cricket board in the world, the BCCI. It is also indicative of the arrogance of the BCCI. Shifting venues is nothing for the Indian body when scrapping World events is the norm. Last year, it had reportedly played a significant role in ensuring the cancelling of the T20 World Cup Down Under just so that the window for the delayed 2020 Indian Premier League (IPL) remained intact.

Of course, like many things right and wrong in the world at the moment, this shift has also been attributed to the novel coronavirus. So, the Ageas Bowl (Rose Bowl), has a five star hotel in the premises, which would help the ICC and the ECB establish a biosecure bubble for the WTC final with less hassle. That’s the premise for the shift.

While one can easily accept the logic, and wait through the endless boredom of a long IPL summer to see Virat Kohli’s men get a chance to win an ICC global trophy finally, it is hard to miss a couple of points that surface which could also have been the reason for the shift. Of course, there is no attempt to insinuate that the Indians demanded the change of venue. But with Ganguly jumping the gun to make the announcement — and the news coming out days after India’s spot was confirmed — one can’t be blamed for thinking so either.

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The first and foremost point that comes to mind is that the Southampton pitch has always provided some support for spinners in the latter stages of a match. 

Traditionally, the Ageas Bowl pitch offers assistance to seamers on Day 1 and 2, while batters could make hay too since it has traditionally been a pitch which offered an even chance for both. The pitch, however, starts to get slower with the days, and spinners have always had a significant say at the venue which has seen a total of six matches so far. Now that should prove advantageous for the Indians one would imagine. 

Let us not jump the gun, though. We are not dada, after all. 

India have a horrendous record at the venue. They have played two Tests and lost both, badly that too. The MS Dhoni-led India suffered a 266-run drubbing at the hands of England in 2014, while in 2018, Kohli was the captain at the receiving end, when the visitors lost by 60 runs. Moeen Ali ran through Indian batting in that match with nine wickets And, things are not that simple either when you consider the fact that the most successful bowler at the venue is Jimmy Anderson (26 wickets in six matches), while Moeen Ali is second with 17 wickets in two. 

At first look these stats may suggest no distinct advantage for spinners, but Ali's average is proof there is assistance for them in the pitch. Just that, statistically, Ali and Ravindra Jadeja, with five wickets from the lost match in 2014, are the only two in the top 10 at the venue. Two left arm spinners among a sea of pacers. Of course, the stats won’t tell the complete picture. The venue has only seen six Tests and a limited number of spinners would have featured in them.

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The faster bowlers have done well for India at the ground for sure — Mohammed Shami leads with 7 wickets in two matches, Ishant Sharma (4), Jasprit Bumrah (4) and Bhuvneshwar Kumar (4). Ravichandran Ashwin has managed three scalps. Among them, except Shami, the rest have played only a single match at Rose Bowl. 

Significantly for India, two active spinners have had decent outings there despite losing causes. The quicks — in good form as they are — can always be in the hunt at the ground. Suddenly, the odds seem to tilt in favour of India, don't they?

Hopefully, two or three of the bowlers in the list, including Jadeja, who missed the England series at home with a thumb injury, would be available for Kohli to call on in the final. Fingers crossed on their fitness though (both mental and physical), with the long and arduous six-venue, two-month Indian Premier League (IPL) between now and then.

That brings us to the New Zealand side of things. The Kiwis have a better record at the venue, albeit not in Tests, having won both ODIs they have played at the venue, and with some ease. However, playing with the red cherry — in a big final — would be a whole different ball game. 

New Zealand have another advantage. They will be in England a month before the Indians arrive for their mandatory hard quarantine of 14 days. New Zealand are playing a two Test series against England in June with the first slated at the Lord’s in London and the second in Birmingham. That gives them a distinct advantage on many counts, including practice in the long format, and familiarity with English conditions.

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Another reason for the shift may be the fact that New Zealand would have had some sort of advantage, having played a Test match at Lord’s a few weeks earlier. That kinda familiarity, coupled with the fact that Indians would be well rested but in a bit of discomfort in hard quarantine, would have tilted the scales in the favour of the Kiwis. 

However, one still can’t help but think that the final of the inaugural edition of the World Test Championship would have been apt at the historic Lord’s. And, the biosecure bubble argument cited falls through when we consider that a Test match would be hosted at the venue a month prior to the final (England vs New Zealand opener). 

It is a one-off winner-takes-all Test match. The stakes are high for everyone involved. So be it for gaining advantage, or ensuring the other party did not get any, the Indian board pushing for things is natural. 

The reason for the shift could be one of anything or a bit of everything mentioned above. And, there is nothing wrong in it at all. It falls within the sporting spirit of cricket. Surely. 

The very spirit by which Test matches could end in two days and no one would care because the victors were the significant stakeholders of the game.

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