It has been a good couple of weeks away watching the BLACKCAPS in action in Melbourne and Sydney, if only to see first-hand the challenges that the team faced. The BLACKCAPS will have returned chastened by the experience and rueing their failure to deliver the sort of performances many would have anticipated.
Don’t underestimate the challenges the team faced, however. Coming from early season weather in New Zealand, they were plunged into 40-degree temperatures in Perth, and with Lockie Ferguson’s injury, the bowlers were forced into heavy workloads right at the start of a testing itinerary.
The BLACKCAPS then arrived in Melbourne to have the first day of their two-day practice match abandoned because of the heat, meaning only one day’s on-field activity between the first two Tests. While the temperatures in Melbourne after a cool first day were not hot, they were certainly warm throughout.
Then the team moved to Sydney where they felt the full toll of injuries and illnesses. On top of that, the second day was one of the hottest ever recorded in the city, although ironically this was New Zealand’s best day of the series. They reduced Australia from 283/3 overnight to 454 all out, capturing the last five wickets for 44 runs, before reaching 68 without loss before the close. However, later in the Test, the physical toll on the players would become clear.
All the way they were faced with a relentless Australian pace attack – quick, tall, consistently able to extract extra bounce. Equally penetrative, and with wickets falling regularly, the Australian captain was able to use them in short attacking bursts, maintaining their freshness in a manner the New Zealand bowlers must have envied. They were superbly backed up by Nathan Lyon, whose accuracy and control of flight and turn made him a threat not just in Sydney, where he was able to dominate.
Watching on from the stands, the control and dominance of the attack was reminiscent of the 2013 Test matches in South Africa where Steyn, Philander, Morkel and Kallis had bowled with similar unrelenting aggression and accuracy, and arguably with even more devastating effect on the New Zealand batting line-up.
Credit too, in discussing the Australian superiority, to a batting line-up that stood up time and again. One of the big differences between the teams was the Australians’ ability to routinely build significant partnerships while New Zealand too often lost wickets close together. And when the less recognised of the Australian batsmen were needed, they stood up and delivered, as illustrated by Travis Head and Tim Paine adding 150 at Melbourne to take their team comfortably beyond 400.
Marnus Labuschagne continued his remarkable introduction to Test cricket. The 25-year old, born in South Africa, emigrated to Australia with his family when he was nine. He long harboured a desire to play Test cricket and he has made the most of the opportunity now it has arrived.
A very organised batsman, particularly strong on the leg side but equally easy on the eye through cover, he is one of those rare cricketers with the ability to step up another gear in the international contest. One suspects he will prove a challenging opponent to many more than just this New Zealand side as his career unfolds.
From an Auckland perspective, it was disappointing to see Lockie Ferguson’s tour so cruelly curtailed, as his pace may have offered additional penetration and a crucial difference as the series unfolded.
Will Somerville will have been disappointed not to have made a bigger impact on his return to the Sydney Cricket Ground, but for the most part, he bowled tidily and it was good to see him warmly welcomed back to the arena by his former home crowd.
Glenn Phillips enjoyed some good fortune in his unexpected Test debut but he batted with grit and determination as well as clear intent to keep the scoreboard moving. Spending long periods under the helmet at short leg, his fielding was energetic and sharp and he will have done his reputation no harm.
Jeet Raval had an equally-unexpected recall in Sydney as the casualty list grew, and he looked a different player from the uncertain tentative batsman we had seen through the later part of 2019. It was great to see him spend time at the crease and to have him rediscover some of the fluency which had escaped him of late. A couple of his pull shots through mid-wicket were amongst the most memorable of the match.
Despite the vagaries of the season’s playing itinerary it is to be hoped that he will be given a chance in the New Zealand A side early in February to further his resurgence. After a tour where so many players returned needing to find some long format form, it is unfortunate that apart from the two matches between India A and the New Zealand A XI there is an absence of first-class cricket until late February, by which time the Test series against India is already underway.
Talk of the Australian tour can’t avoid mention of the crowds, particularly the huge numbers of New Zealanders who turned out in Melbourne. I was on a 5:25 am Air New Zealand 777 out of Auckland on Boxing Day morning and the crew described it as a direct flight to the MCG, explaining that the aircraft would return to Auckland empty.
The assortment of New Zealand Cricket-related attire amongst the crowd reflected the entire history of our game through the coloured clothing era, and the support the visitors offered was remarkable, from the moment Trent Boult broke through in the first over until the dismissal of Tom Blundell after his mighty second innings century brought the game to a close. One of the New Zealand players said in terms of the Kiwi support that they had never experienced anything like it, and sitting in the stand it sounded and felt like it was the Australians who were playing away, so muted was the support from their own fans.
The New Zealand contingent in Sydney was inconspicuous by comparison, and with the exception of the ‘Richies’ who turn out in large numbers on Day Two to sing, chant and play music in memory of Richie Benaud, the home crowd proved lacklustre. The support for the Pink Day was something to be a part of, however, and over $1 million was raised through the match for the Jane McGrath Foundation.
It was an attentive crowd too, with appreciative applause greeting Ross Taylor’s wonderful achievement in becoming New Zealand’s highest Test match run-scorer even before the feat was recognised by the ground announcer at the end of the over.
Image credit: photosport.nz