With the introduction of the World Test Championship (WTC), gone are those days where a dead-rubber Test match was a thing. New Zealand might have already lost the three-match series against Australia after heavy defeats in Perth and Melbourne but Kane Williamson and Co. will look to grab those crucial 40 points when they walk out at the Sydney Cricket Ground for the third and final Test on Friday (January 3).
The Black Caps have been way below par in this series and have hardly managed to challenge Tim Paine's men, losing the first two encounters by margins of 296 and 247 respectively. Barring a couple of players, not a single Kiwi has performed on a consistent basis and that includes the likes of Williamson, Ross Taylor, Tom Latham and Henry Nicholls.
Meanwhile, Australia (256) will look for a clean sweep and close down the gap with India in the WTC table who are currently on top with 360 points to their name. However, smoke haze could come into play during the third Test with bushfires raging across New South Wales. Day 2 of the match on Saturday shapes up as the biggest challenge with temperatures forecast to soar and smoggy conditions expected.
The issue of smoke is a difficult one for officials, who currently rely on a mix of air quality guidelines from the International Cricket Council, state governments and the Australian Institute of Sport. But there are inconsistencies on what is considered "unsafe", with Cricket Australia and the players' association currently working to develop better protocols around visibility and air quality. A Big Bash League match in Canberra was abandoned this month because of toxic bushfire haze.
New Zealand have a lot to worry about as their top performers haven't stepped up to the challenge. To make matters worse, Williamson and Nicholls couldn't take part in the training session prior to the SCG Test as both of them have been hit by illness. Meanwhile, out-of-form Mitchell Santner too has come down with a bug. Jeet Raval is the only specialist batsman in the squad and if the two batsmen fail to recover on time, New Zealand might struggle to pull off a balanced squad for Sydney.
Glenn Phillips will be flying to Sydney to join the New Zealand squad as batting cover. It’s the 23-year-old’s first call-up to the Test squad. He made a strong start to the 2019-20 season by scoring centuries in all three formats, including an impressive first-class hundred against the star-studded England Test side in Whangarei in November.
If Williamson becomes unavailable, one of Latham or Tim Southee will lead the side. It was Southee who led New Zealand against Bangladesh in the absence of Williamson but on Wednesday, it was Latham who took on the official duties at a reception with the Australian Prime Minister.
"[Kane] is obviously a great leader amongst this group and he's passionate about this group so I'm sure if there's any chance of him playing, even if it is a small chance, he'll certainly be playing," Latham said. "It's gone around the team a little bit which obviously isn't ideal but fingers crossed, they're resting up today and hopefully they'll wake up and be good to go.
"If we lost those guys it would be disappointing but we've got a squad of 15 who are passionate about this team and whatever side we do play has the backing of the whole group that it's the right team for the job."
The SCG surface is known to assist spinners but it's highly unlikely that New Zealand will play two tweakers. The touring side have added "local lad" Will Somerville to their squad and he will replace Santner. Meanwhile, Matt Henry is expected to come in for the injured Trent Boult. The biggest positive for New Zealand have been the form of Neil Wagner who has taken 14 wickets in this series at 20.28 and has dismissed Steve Smith four out of four times. The untiring paceman has bowled long spells and has done it with the same amount of intensity.
New Zealand will also be delighted with the way Tom Blundell performed in the last Test. The 29-year-old had replaced Raval and went on to score a solid century in the second innings, aggregating 50 percent of the total score that New Zealand managed.
"We haven't played our best brand of cricket and I know the guys are excited about getting out there over the next five days and trying to put a good performance on the board," Latham said. "Yes, the series is lost but it's the Test Championship and points are up for grabs. We'll be doing our best to put a good performance out there."
Meanwhile, Australia have been unbeaten this home summer and they would like to keep this run going. Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head have both scored a century each, while the likes of Smith, David Warner and Tim Paine have chipped in every now and then.
1104 runs at 64.94! Labuschagne had a magnificent 2019 and was the only batsman to score over 1000 runs in Test cricket this year. He came in as a concussion substitute for Smith during the Ashes and boy he has made the opportunity count! Starting from Lord's, he has had scores of 59, 74, 80, 67, 11, 48, 14, 185, 162, 143, 50, 63 and 19 respectively. Whenever he has walked out to bat, Labuschagne has looked like an immovable object.
Meanwhile, it's been five Tests since Smith scored a century in Test cricket. While it might be alright for some batsmen to go through a few Tests not managing a hundred, this is Smith we are talking about and he is due for a big one. Wagner seems to have worked Smith out. The left-arm fast bowler has been relentless against Smith and the No. 4 batsman will have to find a way to get the better of Wagner in Sydney. Smith has a solid record though at this venue, having scored 548 runs at 68.5.
Australia have added Mitchell Swepson to their squad with the spin-friendly conditions on offer but both - the Australia head coach Justin Langer and skipper Paine have suggested that it won't be easy to tinker with the winning combination, or drop any one of the in-form pacers.
“We’ll have a look again in the morning. It’d be likely we’ll go unchanged but it’s still a possibility when we see that wicket tomorrow morning that we’d go for another spinner. We’ve got some guys in and around our squad who provide quite a bit of flexibility," Paine told reporters in his pre-Test press conference.
"We spoke this morning about making sure that we turn up tomorrow with the same energy and focus that we turned up at the Gabba. All I've asked tomorrow is we turn up expecting New Zealand to come out hard and expecting it to be another fight for five days. We feel if we can match them in that area that eventually we'll be able to wear them down."
Australia (probable XI) - David Warner, Joe Burns, Marnus Labuschagne, Steven Smith, Travis Head, Matthew Wade, Tim Paine (capt & wk), Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon.
New Zealand (probable XI) - Tom Latham, Tom Blundell, Kane Williamson (capt), Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling (wk), Colin de Grandhomme, Tim Southee, Matt Henry, Neil Wagner, Will Somerville.
* With inputs from AFP