The Black Caps will compete in the World Test Championship final this June. Albie Redmore analyses the key performers in each side and their odds of deciding which team comes out on top of a rare one-off encounter on foreign soil.
On June 18, 2021, the Black Caps will - Covid-19 and weather permitting - walk on to the hallowed ground of Lord's in London to take on India in a unique and foreign environment for both teams.
To put the extraordinary nature of this match into perspective, New Zealand have played just four test series against India in the past decade, evenly split between home and away, and consisting of just nine matches.
On top of that, India have played a test at Lord's three times over the past ten years, New Zealand just twice; and the sides have never before faced off at a neutral venue.
The unprecedented nature of this match means that using statistics to predict its outcome is like a proverbial sticky wicket - but I'll give it my best shot regardless.
Cricket as a sport is most often influenced by the performances of its elite players. For example, Kane Williamson averages 78.29 in tests that New Zealand win, as opposed to 26.23 in losses. Jasprit Bumrah, one of India's best bowlers, averages 14.22 in the side's victories and 30.77 in their losses.
These elite performers seemingly have the power to wrestle results their way - if they turn up ready to contribute and conditions suit them.
As far as those conditions are concerned, several will come into play when the two sides face off in the World Test Championship final; but the opposition and ground conditions will be the most influential.
Given that, let's look at how New Zealand and India's best batsmen and bowlers fare in a tale of the tape when it comes to statistical history.
New Zealand's best batsmen (highest average from players who've played more than 10 tests)
The world's top-ranked batsman, Williamson averages just 36.40 against India, and 30.87 on English soil. The one redeeming statistic in his arsenal is an average of 56.25 in his two tests at Lord's. His class and determination to overcome any historical faults is unquestioned however, so we can expect more from the Black Caps captain come June.
Compared to his career average of 45.83, Taylor's performances against India have been underwhelming with an average of just 33.83. However, Taylor has shown the ability to produce on English soil with an average of 40.23 including a century and three fifties. When it comes to Lord's though, Taylor disappoints once again with a 29.17 average.
Nicholls, with the third-highest average in the New Zealand lineup and a ranking of seventh in the world, has never played a test in England and averages a poor 15.25 against India. Nicholls has excelled on home soil, with an average over 50, and one can only hope that the relatively similar conditions in England will suit him - though he performed poorly in 2019's ODI World Cup there.
India's best batsmen (highest average from players who've played more than 10 tests)
Kohli has dropped to number five on the test batting rankings, but don't let that fool you into thinking his influence is any less than Williamson's. Kohli averages an impressive 51.53 against New Zealand with three centuries and three fifties to his name; albeit with a decided bias towards strong home performances (on New Zealand soil he averages a much more modest 36).
However, what will worry Indian fans and give Black Caps supporters hope is Kohli's record in England: he averages a human-looking 36.35 and just 16.25 in four innings at Lord's.
Sharma has destroyed New Zealand bowlers to the tune of a beautifully-round average of 60 in his test career, including 40.66 as a tourist in Aotearoa. His form in New Zealand buoys some otherwise disappointing statistics away from India where he averages a superlative 79.52. Sharma has played just one test in England, at Southampton where he posted scores of 28 and six.
India's third-best batsman and number 10 in the world, Pujara seems like a top performer against the Black Caps attack. However, while he averages 46.81 against New Zealand, that mark is balanced by an average of 20 in the land of the long white cloud. He's also struggled to perform consistently in England where he hits 29.41, including a meagre 22.25 at Lord's.
How the batsmen stack up
When it comes to this specific World Test Championship final scenario, Kohli looks to be the best pick of a bad bunch of batsmen, though a general lack of experience in tests on English soil clouds our data.
It's also worth noting the recent performances and potential of 23-year-old Rishabh Pant who has produced game-turning innings against Australia and England over the past three months and could spring a surprise against the Black Caps.
However, with none of the top six batsmen from these two sides possessing a statistical history that seems truly game-breaking for this match, I'll look now at the bowling attacks of each side in search of a leading indicator of success.
New Zealand's best bowlers (lowest average from players who've played more than 10 tests)
The world's second-best bowler, Wagner's record against India is right around par for his career as he's taken 18 wickets at average of 28.50; which happens to be the same as what he averaged in his one test match at Lord's in 2013. However, Wagner struggled in his only other outing on English soil, taking his overall average there down to a pedestrian 36.28. Another key statistic in Wagner's favour is that he's dismissed Kohli three times at an average of just 20 in his career.
While Boult has had little success against India's top three batsmen, his average is a respectable 29.52, showing his impact in efficiently dismissing a traditionally long Indian tail. Where Boult's statistics are most impressive though is in English territory. Boult takes wickets at an average of 23.14 in England and at 22.33 at Lord's. His impact on this match could be immense.
While Boult excels in English conditions and stumbles against the Indian top order, Southee does the opposite. Southee has dismissed both Kohli and Pujara three times in his test career, holding them to mediocre averages in the process. He also dismissed Sharma while giving up just 20 runs in his lone matchup with him in 2014. These favourable matchups form part of a superb career average of 24.46 against India. However, where the Black Caps veteran struggles slightly more is his record in England, where he averages 34.30, and 33.31 at Lord's. Instead, Southee will be looking to replicate the outlying and outstanding performance he posted against England there in 2013 where he took match figures of 10-108.
India's best bowlers (lowest average from players who've played more than 10 tests)
India's highest-ranked pace bowler will no doubt have an impact at a ground that has frequently favoured his variety of bowling this past decade. His history on English soil backs that statement up as he's taken wickets at a rate of 25.92. He also dismissed Williamson twice the last time they faced each other in a test. Nonetheless, Bumrah has never played at Lord's and averages an unremarkable 31.66 against New Zealand.
The world's second-best all-rounder in tests holds an impressive career average of 24.32 courtesy of his left-arm orthodox spin. However, his statistics fail to hold as much impact when divided amongst the specifics of this upcoming encounter. Jadeja averages 33.68 against New Zealand batsmen and 42.37 on English soil; and while it improves to 33.00 at Lord's, he's still not looking likely as a match-turner for India.
There is a reason Ashwin is ranked the third-best bowler in tests and his name strikes fear into the minds of Black Caps fans. Ashwin has dismissed Williamson and Taylor five times each in tests and dominated Nicholls in their brief history. That history forms part of his incredible average of 16.97 against New Zealand. The only statistic holding Ashwin back from being an automatic game-winner for India is his record in England. All of a sudden, when taking his arsenal of spin-tricks to the home of the sport, Ashwin loses his mojo. His average there rises sharply to 32.92 and in his one appearance at Lord's he conceded 68 runs without taking a wicket.
Another factor that swings the balance of these bowling statistics in New Zealand's favour is the record of both orthodox and off-spin bowlers at Lord's. Bowlers of the same ilk as Jadeja and Ashwin have averaged over 40 at Lord's over the past decade, with only leg-spinners finding success there. More often than not, it's been fast and medium-paced bowlers who have had the most impact on matches at England's premier test venue.
This final statistic, along with the record of New Zealand's top three pace bowlers, leaves me with the impression that the Black Caps have more players with the potential to produce match-winning performances.
History says to expect bowlers to dominate proceedings and both sides' best batsmen will need to defy their records to make an impact. That is not to say that any of the seven batsmen mentioned here cannot win the game for their side, all are capable and have done so in the past, but their records in relation to this matchup present a different story.
For the Black Caps, it would be fitting if the three bowlers who have played such a crucial role in the side's rise to number one in the world also lead them to an unprecedented height in test match cricket.