As the sun set on a glorious summer's day at the Ageas Bowl, India, who finished second at the World Test Championship final, were still at the ground. While Virat Kohli's team ruminated on the events over the course of this rain-truncated six-day Test at the on-site team hotel, at the opposite end Kane Williamson's team was toasting to the victory along with food in the dressing room. The pandemic had created this surreal moment where the defeated could hear the celebrations of the winner. You don't need to play sport to understand how much that hurts.
Immediately after Ross Taylor flicked the winning runs Williamson had skipped merrily towards his team-mate to hug and celebrate this historic moment in New Zealand's cricket history. Metres away, with pursed lips, Kohli shook hands with his team-mates first. Then with the rest of the India squad and the coaching staff followed by the New Zealand team.
A proud man, who would never show defeat in his body language, Kohli climbed the two-tier staircase towards the Indian dressing room with his head bowed. In the adjacent Shane Warne stand Indian fans tried to cheer him up, but that had no effect. Later he would walk back alone dejected towards the team hotel with his India blazer in one hand, holding a bag of sweaty gear in plastic bag in the other hand. Wondering what might have happened.
This was for third global tournament where Kohli's India had failed to win the title: the 2017 Champions Trophy, the 2019 World Cup and now in the WTC final. All three defeats have come in England. All three times the reason has been the same: batting failure.
In the 2017 Champions Trophy final India could barely breathe once Mohammed Amir hit India in the solar plexus by removing Rohit Sharma and Kohli in quick succession. In the 2019 World Cup semi-final, Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri said India had lost their head in the half hour period where the top order fell apart against New Zealand. In the WTC final, under sunny skies, India's batters were unraveled expertly by the sustained pressure employed by New Zealand's four fast bowlers. What happens to India's batting in global tournaments?
It would be foolish to rush into any rash judgement. Unlike New Zealand, who entered the final on the back of a two-Test series against England, Kohli's men had not played any cricket since early May during the IPL and then landed in Southampton where they played a three-day intra-squad match which was in sunny weather. Then last Saturday they were put into bat in the most difficult conditions - dark, gloomy overcast skies. None of the India batters got a 50 as Kyle Jamieson troubled them with his high release point. He would do the same once again in the second innings as the batters crumbled under pressure.
Kohli summarised the defeat saying India had allowed New Zealand bowlers to dominate because they did not look to score. But is that really the case? This Test was played on a pitch made for fast bowlers. However, even the bowlers themselves had to work hard and find the right lengths to make the batter play and draw the false stroke. Only Jamieson succeeded in both innings without breaking much sweat. The rest of them had to work hard to succeed and even then some like Jasprit Bumrah struggled.
In a match where the average scoring rate was hovering around the two runs-per-over mark, batting was never going to be easy. Yet you had to find a way. And one batter who stood out was the best in this match: Williamson. In both innings Williamson displayed a masterclass in not just being patient but in playing the ball late, playing with soft hands, leaving balls that he did not need to play, riding his luck, and then accumulating runs at a steady clip once the bowlers tired.
On Wednesday afternoon as R Ashwin roared and soared into the air having tricked Tom Latham and Devon Conway, India were threatening to make an improbable comeback. But Williamson did not want to counterattack. He was well aware that there were enough overs left in the afternoon and his priority was to bide time before seizing the moment at an opportune time.
The New Zealand captain's patience paid off. The India pace bowlers were weary having bowled tirelessly on Tuesday. Ashwin, too, became relatively easy to deal with. The runs started coming as the bowlers offered width and bowled short. Willliamson along with Taylor picked the right deliveries to attack while taking minimal risks. It was a strategy opposite to the one Kohli was suggesting.
India also need to work out their team balance. They announced their XI on June 17, the eve of the WTC final. The next day was a washout but India retained their team. As Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Bumrah tired out, the question about whether India could have done with an extra seamer remained alive throughout. But as India move their focus towards the five-Test England series, they might even need to consider whether they need batting cushion with a sixth specialist in Hanuma Vihari.
On the 2018 England tour Kohli was the best batter on both sides, the only one to aggregate over 500 runs in the five-Test series which India lost 4-1. Kohli said England allrounder Sam Curran was the difference between the two teams as the left-arm bowling allrounder created an impact with both ball and bat. In the WTC final it was Jamieson.
There is no lack of self-belief in this India squad. Otherwise they would have never won the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Australia with a second-string team in the absence of a host of key players including Kohli. Senior batters like Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Sharma will need to assist Kohli in being the backbone of India batting. The success of these men will invigorate Rishabh Pant and Shumban Gill who can score at a fast clip and take the game away in a matter of a session.
Pant nearly did that on Wednesday but paid the price for playing the stroke after lunch on the sixth day which firmly tilted the contest in New Zealand's favour. Pant is young and the team management wants to give him the long leash which will help him understand his responsibility. But even the seniors like Pujara, who has been one of the weakest batters for India in the WTC, need to figure out a way to work for the team's goal.
After the defeat Kohli gave a big nod to the WTC saying Test cricket is the "heart beat" of international game. He knows Test cricket is a mountain that cannot be scaled at one go. It needs a lot of planning and then a lot of things to fall in place, some of which are not in your hands. But one has to be prepared, both mentally, physically and skillwise. Otherwise one can very easily slip and fall. India's batters have a mountain to climb soon when they embark on the five-Test series against England. Can they make a difference?