The series-opener in Perth proved to be anti-climatic! New Zealand, a competitive Test side which has shown the ability to pose a challenge against any opposition irrespective of the conditions, was sub-par with the bat falling like a row of dominos in both innings of the game against Australia.
The contest was extensively one-sided pegging the visitors 1-0 behind in the series. Only three touring sides have been able to recover from 1-0 trail in a Test series in Australia - England twice in 1911-12 and 1954-55 and West Indies in 1992/93. But if there is a current side that can repeat the feat then it is Kane Williamson’s New Zealand. The last time Blackcaps lost back-to-back Tests was against India in India in 2016. Since then, they have twice came back in a series while chasing the right-ball - in Abu Dhabi in 2018 to beat Pakistan 2-1 and then in Colombo earlier this year to level 1-1 against Sri Lanka.
But what makes the task humongous for Kiwis is the lack of preparation. They did not play any warm-up game before the first Test. Later, their two-day warm-up against a local Victoria XI was cut down to a one day after New Zealand refused to take the field on the first day due to heatwave in Victoria.
Less preparation has often led to teams starting slowly in overseas Test series. This was highlighted post India’s defeat in the first Test against South Africa in 2018. New Zealand’s batting struggles in Perth once again underlined the importance of warm-up encounters.
The visitors also suffered with Williamson failure to kick on in Perth. The only Kiwi batsman to average in excess of 50 in the country’s 89-year old Test history, the New Zealand skipper has played a huge part in his side’s resurgence in the Test format.
A long innings from Williamson hence becomes indispensable for the Kiwis. However, the other batsmen may also enjoy this track more than most of the venues they have played at.
In fact, the pitch at Melbourne Cricket Ground is so flat that Australian coach Justin Langer has thrown in the possibility of fielding five specialist bowlers. The Melbourne Test against England in 2017 saw Australian bowlers bowl 144.1 overs despite dictating terms in the series with the ball. In 2018, against India, the toil was even harder - 169.4. Keeping these last two Tests in mind along with the predicted hot and humid conditions on the big surface area of the MCG, four pure fast bowlers along with a spinner might not be a naive decision.
The Kiwis, on the other hand, will welcome Trent Boult back in the side. Recovering from injury, the left-arm seamer bowled 11 overs turning up for Victoria XI (instead of New Zealand) to get some bowling practice and dismissed Tom Latham with the new ball.
Besides the competition between bat and ball, the contest will also be a stern test for the debatable MCG track. The most recent Sheffield Shield match at the venue was abandoned due to an overprepared pitch. The 22-yards for the third Ashes Test in 2017 was rated as poor by ICC while the subsequent Test at the venue - versus India in December 2018 - received average ratings. The pitch curator, Matt Page, however, seems content with the work done on the pitch for New Zealand’s first Test in Melbourne after 32 years.
As mentioned above, Australia have hinted at fielding five specialist bowlers but the decision will be taken on the morning of the match. In case the tactic is implemented, Travis Head seems most likely to make way for Michael Neser’s debut while James Pattinson will fill in for Josh Hazlewood’s absence due to injury.
Probable XI: David Warner, Joe Burns, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Matthew Wade, Travis Head/Michael Neser, Tim Paine (c), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson, Nathan Lyon.
Having scored a hundred on his Test debut, Tom Blundell is set to play Test cricket after more than two years replacing Jeet Raval. Boult will replace the injured Lockie Ferguson with rest of the team assured to be same.
Probable XI: Tom Latham, Tom Blundell, Kane Williamson (c), Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling (wk), Colin de Grandhomme, Mitchell Santner, Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Neil Wagner