“We think it’s going to be a bit of bodyline for a lot of the series”, said Australian captain, Tim Paine after the culmination of the Perth Test. The first day of the Melbourne Test was a reminder of Paine’s words after New Zealand won the toss and elected to field first.
Kane WIlliamson’s decision came as a surprise given the perennially batting-friendly nature of MCG track. But the idea was to take advantage of the cloud cover. Back in the side after injury, Trent Boult backed his skipper’s decision in the very first over of the game with a beautiful inswinger that went through Joe Burns’ bat swing to clatter into the middle-stump. Marnus Labuschagne, the highest run-scorer in Test cricket this year was later beaten twice by Boult in the remaining two balls of that over.
In-form David Warner’s departure, 20 overs later, reduced the home side to 61 for 2, leaving New Zealand on top. But the next batsman in, Steve Smith, batting alongside his clone Labuschagne, was due for a big one after under-performing in his last three Tests. The Kiwis, who had successfully employed the short-ball ploy against Smith, twice, in the previous Test, once again went with the same ploy.
The bodyline tactic was on with both the batsmen batting for survival in the morning session. Blackcaps kept hurling short pitched deliveries at Smith. 13 out of his first 19 deliveries were either pitched short or in the back of the length area. Silly point, short-leg, deep fine leg, leg slip and square leg were regular features in the opening session of the Test match.
Australian coach Justin Langer had attached the label of problem-solver against Smith’s name during the Ashes and the former Australian captain proved his coach right with an answer ready for the Kiwi bowlers. His reply included taking blows on his body before lunch and finding little gaps available square of the wicket on the leg-side in the second session.
Labuschagne, on the other hand, was as solid as he has been this year. Even though he was lucky to nick the ball around New Zealand’s slip cordon, he seemed in utmost control during his knock of 63. Kicking on from the hard yards in the first session, the duo neutralized New Zealand’s advantage in the post lunch session when batting got easier under bright sunshine.
However, the tinge of green on the MCG track aided seam movement throughout the day. Uneven bounce wasn’t an anomaly. Marnus Labuschagne received a rising delivery from Colin de Grandhomme which ricocheted to the stumps from his elbow. Contrarily, Matthew Wade suffered from lack of bounce when he was hit on the back of his helmet while crouching to a Neil Wagner bouncer.
“There is a nice little patch on the 4-5m mark and if you hit that consistently, the balls were doing funny things”, said Steve Smith after staying unbeaten at the end of the day.
Wade scored a fighting 38 on his 32nd birthday before de Grandhomme, who bowled with nagging accuracy and extracting seam movement from the track, induced an outside edge off his bat to BJ Watling. Joined by Travis Head, Smith saw the day through cautiously with 77 against his name.
On a track where both, picking wickets and scoring runs freely, were a tough task, Smith’s innings has handed the advantage to Australia, who have six wickets in hand, not the result the opposition were looking for while opting to bowl first.