Unprecedented six changes also highlight WTC’s impact on international cricket
New Zealand have never previously made six changes to their side within a series and that they did so at Edgbaston and still managed to take seven wickets after being asked to bowl on a flat pitch was evidence of two things: firstly, unprecedented strength in depth within their Test squad, and secondly, the extent of the World Test Championship’s impact on international cricket.
It has been clear for some time that the notion of teams knowing their ‘best XI’ is anachronistic in this era of international cricket but in the Covid era of enlarged squads, bubble fatigue, variety in conditions and a punishing schedule, squad depth is more relevant than ever. India proved as much during their improbable series win in Australia at the start of this year, and with New Zealand fielding 17 players across these two Tests, they are showing that the era of “Hadlee at one end, Ilford seconds at the other” is long gone.
But in the 18 months since, they have made strides forwards: Jamieson, Daryl Mitchell and Devon Conway have made fine starts to their respective careers, Blundell looks ready to take the gloves full-time once Watling retires, and Patel and Matt Henry have slotted in without fuss. The true test of depth will come tomorrow, when a batting line-up shorn of its linchpin comes up against England’s four seamers, but on a dry pitch with few obvious demons, it would be no surprise if they took a lead into the third day.
“We knew there were some [injury] doubts, and we obviously always fall back on our squad,” Henry said at the close. “We’ve got a big squad here and everyone seems to have a good understanding of where they sit and experience as well. As a squad, we’re pretty confident and happy with what we have in the sheds. That’s what’s been the foundation of this squad: that depth, and trusting that when you come in, you know what your role is.”
It was Patel who made the strongest case for retention in next week’s final on the first day, though Henry bowled better than his figures suggested – in keeping with the rest of his Test career – and Mitchell nagged away tirelessly on a length. While England had opted not to field a frontline spinner for the second Test in a row – and the fifth time since Chris Silverwood became head coach in late 2019 – Patel showed the benefits of picking one, providing the control that had eluded Santner at Lord’s as he conceded only 2.42 runs an over in a holding role.
He made two important breakthroughs, too, ending stands of 42 and 47 when Ollie Pope edged behind and Olly Stone was pinned lbw on the sweep. Pitches at the Ageas Bowl are more spin-friendly than in the majority of England, and with India’s line-up dominated by right-handers, Patel’s ability to turn the ball away from the bat makes him a more persuasive option than a fifth seamer in next week’s final.
With England’s multi-format players missing and New Zealand happy to rotate ahead of the main event, the fact there are no points at stake seems to have taken something away, even with a 17,000-strong Edgbaston crowd adding to the spectacle on Thursday. Much of the criticism of England’s final-day go-slow at Lord’s rested on the point that there was nothing to lose: while the WTC’s first cycle has struggled to spark much enthusiasm, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is shaping teams’ approaches.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98