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The forgotten hour that could cost England a place in the World Test Championship final

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 3 minute read

It’s one ball into the final hour of the final day of a Test summer it seemed at one point would never happen, and Joe Root offers Azhar Ali a handshake. No one bats an eyelid.

England are 1-0 up in the series. Pakistan are trailing in the follow on with six wickets in hand. Anderson has claimed his coveted 600th. Dom Sibley has bowled an over. The game has meandered to such an extent it has almost created an ox-bow lake.

England have bowled 93 overs in the first innings and 83.1 in the second, and though rain has helped keep them fresh, you can almost feel them itching to get out of a bio-bubble that has kept them cocooned for months, like children watching the clock on the last day of term. A series win has been secured, and the game has long since lost its intensity.

It’s the kind of passage we were told the World Test Championship would help avert, giving every game context and ensuring there’s no such thing is a dead rubber. Though it didn’t manage to on this occasion, come the end of England’s series against India, they might just look back on the lost 60 minutes with regret, and the next time a game is listing towards a seemingly inevitable conclusion, England might just strain an extra sinew to try and wring something out of it.

Had England won that final Test against Pakistan, a whitewash in Sri Lanka and a draw in India would have seen them overtake Virat Kohli’s side in the WTC standings. If Australia were to then fail to win in South Africa, England would be in the final at Lord’s. As it is, England need to win in India to stand any chance of making the showpiece clash. Both scenarios are long shots, but the second feels far longer.

Contrast Root’s approach to that of Australia’s Tim Paine at Sydney. With India five down, and time running out, he employed every trick in every book, even those marked ‘dark arts’ in the library’s restricted section, to try and prise an opening. Though he has since rightly been criticised for some of the tactics employed, it at least showed his desperation to try and break through.

Six wickets in an hour – a requirement which could have been less had England not gone to their very-part-timer so soon – is a tough ask, but not an impossible one. In New Zealand’s thrilling first Test against Pakistan that ended 2020, the fifth wicket in the fourth innings fell 10 overs and five balls into the final session, and the Black Caps still won out. The commentators in the aftermath rejoiced that their path to the WTC final hadn’t been made harder.

Pakistan, of course, have form. Notably, back in 2016, they lost nine wickets in the final session to slump to an unlikely defeat. Today marks the anniversary of a similar England heist, when Phil Tufnell claimed 7-47 in a ball over 46 overs against New Zealand. England claimed seven post-tea wickets on day five to give England victory by an innings and four runs.

What this also perhaps speaks to is England’s relative lack of killer instinct at home. While they haven’t lost a series at home since 2014, and are now a side who frequently compete away too, England rarely crush teams in the manner the three sides above them in the WTC table routinely do. Kane Williamson’s New Zealand, with their own brand of gentle ruthlessness, provide the perfect contrast. Against West Indies and Pakistan, two teams England just struggled past in the summer, New Zealand won by an innings three times and emerged with four wins from four.

The World Test Championship may yet be a one-off experiment and England could end it having not been beaten in a series but still having not made the final. That might just teach them a lesson about one of the things that separates them from the best, and the dominant streak they might need to take on to reach them.

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