The Test series comprising the Boxing Day and the New Year Tests is the highlight of the Australian summer every year. The last time the Kiwi’s visited Australia for this showpiece event, none of the ‘Fab-4’ was born.
A series against New Zealand does not match the commercial lucrativeness of India and England. Such economic calculations have reduced the last four out of five series between the neighbours to a Two-Test series. In fact, the last time the Blackcaps played a Test series of more than three Tests against any nation was in 1985.
1985 was also the year when New Zealand beat Australia Down Under. 34 years later, New Zealand are the second-ranked team in the world and equipped with players capable to beat the Australians in their own den.
Moving aside from being ‘under the radar’ like their past teams, the current New Zealand lot is making loud noises. Not just as a team but also as individuals. Five of the top-7 batsmen in the Kiwi line-up are under 20 in the ICC rankings. Four out of them are in top-15 and two even in top-10. Their three frontline pacers – Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner are among the top-13. The all-rounder Colin de Grandhomme is ninth in the world. They are a dominating force at home where they have won their last five series. Known for their adaptability, they are the only team from outside the subcontinent to beat Pakistan at their adopted home in UAE (2-1 in 2018).
Jeet Raval is the only batsmen in the New Zealand top-7 that averages under 40. Their wicket-keeper, BJ Watling (average 43.1), is behind only Andy Flower (53.7) and Adam Gilchrist (47.6) on all-time Test averages among regular wicket keepers with more than 1000 Test runs. The last time Ross Taylor played at Perth, though at WACA, he scored 290.
Kane Williamson the backbone of Kiwi batting lineup has an average of 65.2 since 2018, better than Steve Smith (64.9) and Virat Kohli (58.6). If control is anything to judge by, he has the least false shot percentage among all batsmen with at least 500 runs since 2018. Tom Latham follows his skipper at the second spot. He too averages above sixty since 2018 (62.3)
Australia are a strong outfit themselves. They possess one of the best bowling attacks in the world. Their batting, however, rides on the success of three key batsmen – Smith, Labuschagne and Warner.
New Zealand need to worry about Smith. He scored only 40 runs across two Tests against Pakistan. This a batsman with the best Test average (63.8) after Don Bradman. He will be waiting for his chance with salivating anticipation.
Labuschagne is the find of the year for Australia. He is the leading run-scorer in Test cricket in 2019. Taken to Test cricket like fish to water, Labuschagne has been unperturbed in England and back home.
Warner’s story this year is a tale of two halves. During the first half, away from home in England, Warner was a walking wicket. 95 runs in 10 innings as an opener are a proof of that. Back home, on flat wickets against an inexperienced Pakistan bowling attack, Warner added 489 runs in two innings including a 335* - the second-highest Test score for Australia. In addition to being at home, Warner’s average of 71.3 against the Kiwis as compared to his career average of 48.6 is sure to have him relish the encounter.
There is a gulf between these three and other Australian batsmen. While Matthew Wade’s place is secure, the same is not true for Joe Burns and Travis Head. Captain Tim Paine as well is struggling to prove his credentials with the bat. If the Kiwi bowlers can find a way to dismiss the three big guns, the Australian batting unit might capitulate.
On the bowling front, New Zealand are waiting on the injury update to their spearhead Boult. Nursing a side-strain, Boult’s absence can result in a debut for the tearaway World Cup star, Lockie Ferguson. Going by the statistics, the Kiwis will hope to enjoy the services of the best pink-ball bowler.
With or without Boult, the Kiwis will relish having Wagner. Playing his first Test Down Under, Wagner is adept in bowling awkward lengths on dead wickets. His battle with Smith is a mouthwatering prospect. Coming off back-to-back fifers on flat wickets against England, Wagner holds the key to the Kiwi prospects in this series.
Australia, on the other hand, have the number one Test bowler (Pat Cummins) and the leading wicket-taker in day-night Tests (Mitchell Starc) in their ranks. Josh Hazlewood has taken as many wickets as Cummins (30) at a better average and strike-rate since his callback in the team during the second Ashes Test at Lords.
Sports thrive on contests between two equally equipped oppositions. It is a rarity in cricket despite only a handful of Test-playing nations. The first Test of the series will set the tone for the grand finale of the Australian summer. In the last 50 years, Australia have 58 of the 87 Test series at home. Only once have they come back to win the series after losing the first Test.