By lunch on the fifth day, something was stirring – and not just on the pitch. All around the concourse at the Ageas Bowl, excited conversations were taking place in the queues for the concessions, and in knots under the awnings which had previously been used only for rather forlorn shelter from the rain. A burst of breakthroughs from India with the prospect of more to come, and suddenly the Ultimate Test was threatening to live up to its billing.
It’s perhaps too soon to get over-excited about a positive result, the sixth day notwithstanding, but at least there’s a chance to change the foghorn narrative of the World Test Championship final. “#shameontheicc!” has been the chant on social media, because yes, it’s clearly the governing body’s fault that the heavens chose this week of all weeks to open like a slice-gate and rain on the ICC’s shiniest new venture.
Had the contest taken place only days earlier, it would have been basking in England’s hottest weather of the year so far – balmy temperatures in excess of 30 degrees, no less … but no, as Twitter rightly points out, it only ever rains in this country, and no international fixtures have ever reached a successful conclusion here in more than 140 years of trying.
The criticism, however, has been rather moreish for those who love to clamber aboard a bandwagon. “England should be banned from hosting ICC events,” was the sentiment that Kevin Pietersen chose to echo, as the fourth day, like the first, was washed straight down the gurgler.
“If it was up to me, Dubai would always host a one-off match like this WTC game,” Pietersen wrote on Twitter. “Neutral venue, fabulous stadium, guaranteed weather, excellent training facilities and a travel hub! Oh, and ICC home is next to the stadium.”
All pertinent points, no doubt, especially with the hindsight that comes from such a miserable anti-climax. But, as a man whose desire to play to the gallery was the defining trait of his career, Pietersen’s urge to indulge the furious masses has caused him to overlook perhaps the most critical criteria in England’s favour as a host country. The one that has been huddled in the damp all week long, and which, in spite of everything, could yet prove to be this contest’s saving grace.
In spite of everything, the crowds for the WTC final have been little short of heroic. Passionate, stoic, optimistic and tenacious, they have kept coming in their hundreds in the face of rank futility – an exclusively UK-based contingent, and just 25% capacity in keeping with the Covid restrictions, but drawn from India’s and New Zealand’s hefty diasporas in a guarantee of representation that could not realistically have been replicated in any other host nation.
The ICC reckons they could have sold this contest out several times over, and that’s in spite of its relocation from the cosmopolitan hub of Lord’s to the motorway lay-by of the Ageas Bowl – a necessary adjustment in the current climate, but one that could easily have separated the committed fans from the casual onlookers.
Not a bit of it. India’s fans, in particular, have come in their droves – from London, Luton and Leicester, and everywhere in between – banging their drums, waving their flags, donning their tri-colour pagri, and exuding, through thin and thinner, an enthusiasm for the occasion that cannot be faked.
By 2.30pm on the fourth afternoon, for instance, despite having stared at the covers for four hours of scheduled playing time, a huge contingent were still gathered at the top of the Shane Warne Stand, singing their tributes to Ravindra Jadeja and Rishabh Pant, and greeting their intermittent glimpses of a Virat Kohli here or a Jasprit Bumrah there with rock-star acclaim – and utter vindication of their patience.
As for the Kiwis, they’ve been outnumbered but far from under-represented – kitted out in their replica beige and turquoise shirts, and their sailor’s hats in tribute to their skipper, Kane Williamson, and his air of salty sea-dog as he sets about “stiddying the shup” once again in his typically unflappable manner.
And while the weather did make a dent in the 2019 World Cup as well (four washouts out of 48, as it happens, which is not quite the “ruining” that some on Twitter seem to recall) the ubiquity of support for every competing nation in that competition goes to show that, whoever had made this final – Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, even the last in the standings, but definitely not least, Bangladesh – there would have been a crowd to fit the occasion.
Frankly that matters, every bit as much as a positive result. After all, the World Test Championship is a long-overdue attempt to provide “context” to the international calendar, which is actually a euphemism for “proving the point” of Test cricket.
Existing aficionados love the format for what it already is – not least Kohli, who rather rained on the final’s parade a full 24 hours before the heavens followed suit by insisting that “those who understand the game” would not accept that a one-off match can decide which team is the best in the world.
But those who aren’t necessarily in the know, or could do with having their curiosity piqued in a rather more grandstanding fashion, were the ones towards whom this contest was truly geared. They were to be dangled a biennial carrot – a proper spectacle featuring the two finest Test teams of the moment – and to judge by the teasingly brief glimpses of action we’ve been afforded this week, the quality on show really could not have been bettered.
We’ve all become depressingly inured to the sight of empty banks of seats at stadiums throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, but what would it have proved for this showpiece event to be played to a conclusion in another echoingly empty environment – indistinguishable from any of the numerous Tests that are currently drifting along around the world? As Keshav Maharaj’s hat-trick in St Lucia showed on Monday, any of these contests can explode into life at any given moment. But without witnesses to such spectacles, they are essentially shouting into the void.
The pity is that England has not had the chance to prove its neutral-host credentials more often. Astonishingly, this is just the sixth such fixture in 141 years, and until this late, late stirring, it was proving to be every bit as cursed as its benighted predecessors – most especially the 1912 triangular tournament, a competition way before its time, and doomed to apathy as the rain held sway almost for its entirety – including through the wettest August in the whole of the 20th Century.
The other two neutral games on English soil, in 2010, were kiboshed for rather more awkward reasons. The ECB’s goodwill towards Pakistan – exiled since the Lahore shootings a year earlier and hosted for two Tests against Australia under the guise of the “MCC Spirit of Cricket series” – had rather dissipated by the time they were caught in the News of the World’s match-fixing stint during the Lord’s Test against England. But for that, the drama of their three-wicket series-levelling win at Headingley might well have sealed them a longer-term home-from-home.
And that, until now, has been that. And who knows, maybe the ill vibes of the first four days will spook the powers-that-be into thinking this really isn’t a venture worth pursuing – it didn’t take much to blow the WTC concept off-course when it was proposed and thrown out in 2011 and 2014, after all. But let’s hope not. There has been the seed of something special germinating in the rain this week. Let’s hope a sixth day of sun can allow it to bloom after all.