Australia's new run-machine Marnus Labuschagne was at it again as his fourth Test century helped the home team take control on the opening day of the third and final encounter at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Friday (January 3).
Labuschagne looked unstoppable and added 156 runs with Steven Smith for the third wicket. The latter got out after scoring a fifty but Labuschagne carried on and was unbeaten on 130 along with Matthew Wade (22*) as Australia were cruising along nicely at 283 for 3 when stumps were drawn.
Australia won the toss and chose to bat against the visitors, who made five changes to the team that lost the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne by 247 runs. New Zealand went into the Sydney Test without skipper and star batsman Kane Williamson, who had been ill in the lead-up.
Henry Nicholls and spinner Mitchell Santner were other illness withdrawals while Tim Southee lost his place to legspinner Todd Astle. Injured paceman Trent Boult was also missing, while Glenn Phillips, who made a late dash to Sydney on Thursday as cover, was handed his Test debut. Will Somerville, Matt Henry and Jeet Raval were also called into the side, while the Australians went unchanged despite all the talks around Mitchell Swepson.
Henry looked ordinary in his opening spell and that allowed David Warner and Joe Burns to get off to a decent start. Burns however couldn't carry on and was dismissed in the 15th over, squared up by Colin de Grandhomme and caught by Ross Taylor at first slip for 18. That brought 2019's highest run-getter in Test cricket Labuschagne to the crease and the No. 3 batsman looked at utmost ease from the word go.
Meanwhile, Warner was slightly defensive with his approach as New Zealand bowlers kept hitting the length and didn't offer him too many freebies. The left-handed opener however looked in no hurry and kept the scoreboard ticking with ones and twos. He finally ran out of patience in the 28th over and fell to Neil Wagner's tried-and-tested ploy. Wagner, who had an outstanding 2019, dropped one short but the ball didn't quite rise up as expected and Warner ended up hitting it straight to leg-gully. It was the fourth time in the series Wagner had snared Warner. The left-hander scored 45 runs and this was the third time in the series he was dismissed in the 40s.
Coming in to bat at No. 4, Smith looked dodgy at the start with Wagner peppering him with short deliveries. It took Smith 39 deliveries and a risky single to get off the mark, but from there on, he operated at his usual best. Both him and Labuschagne were hardly bothered by the spinners Somerville and Astle. Labuschagne, who was the only batsman to score over 1000 runs in Test cricket last year, started 2020 in a similar fashion and completed his half-century at the halfway stage of Day 1.
Smith, who was struggling to find gaps at the start of his innings, too started scoring freely and it was evident that Somerville, Astle and Henry were unable to build on the pressure that was created by Wagner. The spinners were guilty of bowling either too full or too short and the two Australians pounced on every bad delivery. The stand-in skipper Tom Latham had no option but to go back to his ace paceman Wagner.
The left-armer kept testing Labuschagne and Smith with short stuff but the two batsmen didn't go for any aerial shot and just played Wagner out. After Smith completed his 29th Test fifty in 143 deliveries, Labuschagne got to his century by glancing one down the leg. This was his fourth ton in the last five Tests.
Wagner kept running in but he found no support whatsoever. The Australian duo took no chances against him and accumulated runs from the other end. Since 2019, Kiwi spinners have operated with a bowling strike rate of 112.4, which is the worst among all Test-playing nations. The visiting side straightaway took the new ball once it was available and the new red cherry did the trick.
De Grandhomme once again managed to nip the ball away and Smith was caught at the crease and ended up edging it to the first slip. The right-hander made 63 runs and is yet a score a century in this home summer.
That brought Wade to the crease and the crowd got to see an entertaining battle between him and Wagner. The left-handed batsman went for his shots and smoked Wagner for 4,6 and 4 in one over. Labuschagne however didn't try anything fancy and ensured Australia were well on top at the end of Day 1.
This Test is being played against the backdrop of one of Australia's most devastating bushfire seasons with at least 18 people losing their lives in blazes raging across the country, including the outskirts of Sydney. Play will be suspended in the match at the umpire's discretion, should smoke significantly affect air quality or visibility, but the sky above the ground was clear on Day 1.
* With inputs from AFP