The quantum of scrutiny varies among players. Flair helps some players to get away with a lean passage. Some, however, have to pile on the numbers to move from the category of a fluke to substance.
Marnus Labuschagne – an unknown commodity until the Lord’s Test earlier this year – was the second-best batsmen in the Ashes after Steve Smith. Yet, his ability to score the magic three-digit number was a big question at the beginning of the home summer. By the end of the first day against the Kiwis, Labuschagne has gatecrashed this landmark thrice in as many innings.
He hit 14 fours and a six in an innings played at a false shot percentage of 6.9% - his lowest in any innings with more than 25 balls faced. If constant improvement is anything to go by, Labuschagne’s control has improved in each subsequent innings in the home summer. (9.2% false shots to 8.3% to 6.9%).
Severe to anything full and short, Labuschagne hit boundaries all over the ground. Four of his boundaries were behind square on the off-side, two through covers, three came straight, one clipped between mid-on and mid-wicket, two pulled and two glanced towards fine leg. High on confidence, he hit Santner down the ground for a six to reach the three-figure mark.
Labuschagne brilliance aside, the Kiwis largely controlled the game. The opening bowlers – Tim Southee and the debutant Lockie Ferguson, in particular, were too full to Warner early on, resulting in four boundaries in the first hour.
The first change pair – Neil Wagner and Colin de Grandhomme pulled the rate back with accurate bowling. At no point after that, the New Zealand bowlers allowed Australia to score briskly.
Apart from the first hour, the hour before tea – with Labuschagne and Smith well settled and the latter put down – was the only period when Australia scored at more than 3 runs per over.
Every team will struggle without their main strike bowler away from home. Things worsened for the Kiwis when the debutant Lockie Ferguson injured his calf just before tea. However, a team built to thwart crisis did not let their absence hurt them much.
On a day were the temperatures touched the forty-degree mark, the Kiwi workhorse, Wagner bowled 22 relentless overs in the day in four spells. Shifting away from his modus operandi of short-pitched bowling, 83% of his balls were at length or full in the first session.
Capitalizing on the sustained pressure, de Grandhomme trapped Joe Burns in the 13th over. Wagner then plucked a return catch off Warner, with one hand, millimetres above the ground. Two wickets in the morning session was advantage Kiwis.
Post lunch, the Kiwis continued to test Labuschagne and Smith with length or full deliveries. While Labuschagne continued to put an odd bad-ball away, Smith was kept quiet. Such was the bowling accuracy that Smith scored only eight runs in first 50 balls, the slowest start for him in his career.
Despite accurate bowling, Kiwis were wicket-less in the second session when Smith was on 19, Tom Latham put down a chance off Ferguson at the second slip.
Continuing the toil for Kiwis after tea, Labuschagne first reached 2500 first-class runs in 2019 – the most by any batsmen. He then reached to 1000 Test runs – fourth fastest for any Australian batsmen in terms of innings. Lastly, he completed his third consecutive century, the first Australian to do so since Adam Voges in 2016.
Wagner, returning to his modus operandi kept 80% of his balls short in the final session. He was finally rewarded when Smith mistimed a pull to Southee at short fine leg. After the second new-ball was taken five overs later, Southee delivered the ball of the day. Having beaten Matthew Wade on an away going delivery from around the wicket an over earlier, Southee bowled his natural angle – the one that leaves a right-hander. Unable to read the trajectory, Wade shouldered arms to hear his stumps rattled as the ball clipped the bails.
One more wicket could have evened the day. But, the Kiwis had to contain with only a few plays and misses in the last seven overs. With the ball relatively new and an out-of-touch Travis Head at the crease, Kiwi will hope for some early strikes on the second day.