57 overs, 174 runs, 1 wicket. Australia piled on runs in the first two sessions governed by a 140-run stand between Travis Head and Tim Paine as New Zealand bowlers toiled hard on a MCG track which became flatter as the second day unfolded.
Head, who was set to make way for Michael Neser’s debut in case Australia decided to play five specialist bowlers, notched up the second hundred of his Test career. In an innings spanned across four sessions with unwavering patience, Head held the innings together battling the Kiwi bowlers, who otherwise bowled with tight line and length, albeit, without much success.
The first hour of the day saw only 27 runs in 14 overs. Around the Tea break, Head was stuck in the nervous 90s for 38 balls. Unperturbed by the pressure mounted by the opposition, the southpaw played a chanceless until he brought up three figures minutes post the start of third session. He became the first South Australian batsman to score a Test ton at the Melbourne Cricket Ground since Greg Chappell’s 114 against England in 1980.
His skipper, Paine, on the other hand, kept the Kiwi bowlers under pressure with a breezy knock of 79 off 138 balls. Paine replaced Steve Smith in the morning session after the overnight batsman was bounced out (for the third time in the series) by Neil Wagner for 85. Till then, the game had not really moved on from the overnight score as Smith added only eight runs from 50 deliveries in the opening hour.
The Kiwis tried to employ similar short-ball tactic against Paine but without much avail. Instead, the Aussie opener took on the short balls scoring at a strike-rate of 66.7 off the 27 short balls he faced on a spongy Melbourne wicket. A pull shot piercing the gap between deep fine leg and square leg fielder for four stood out for Paine.
A wicketless second session saw Australia add 95 runs out of which Paine accounted for 44 runs. A maiden Test century was in sight before Neil Wagner shattered his dreams with a in-coming delivery from around the wicket that struck the right-hander on his knee roll. Umpire, Marais Erasmus adjudged him not out but the DRS call marked the delivery clattering into the stumps.
While the first two sessions witnessed only one wicket, the last session saw seven dismissals. Australia, in a bid to increase their scoring rate, lost their last five wickets within 49 balls after tea which included the fall of Paine and Head. Wagner accounted for two of those wickets ending the innings for four wickets for himself and becoming the fifth bowler this year to pick 40 scalps.
Australia ended their first innings with 467 on a pitch that did not support any lateral movement for fast bowlers but still aided spongy bounce. A full length Mitchell Starc delivery rising steeply to beat Paine over his head confirmed the notion.
Batting with the objective of survival, New Zealand suffered two blows before the stumps. Tom Blundell, after giving a glimpse of Kane Williamson in his presence at the crease and looking solid in his 31-minute stay at the crease ended up playing a loose drive only managing an outside edge to Paine off Pat Cummins. About 40 minutes later, James Pattinson, playing his first Test since Ashes 2019, delivered a knock out punch to Kane Williamson who skied an inopportune pull shot.
The visitors, almost and further, sunk to 40 for three in Pattinson’ next over when Ross Taylor adjudged out in front of the stumps. However, replays on the DRS call suggested the ball may have bounced over the stumps allowing Taylor to resume his innings.
Tom Latham, although, remained firm at his end despite a struggling stay at the crease during which he managed only nine runs of 57 balls.
With all three sessions going their way, Australia has attained a tight grip over the match. Williamson’s dismissal and a trail of 423 runs pose an imposing task ahead of Tom Latham and Ross Taylor, who is 47 runs behind surpassing Stephen Fleming to become New Zealand’s leading run-scorer in Test cricket, on day 3. Given the spongy bouncy of the pitch, Nathan Lyon will also be licking his fingers alongside the Aussie pacers.