Anything makes a greater impression when you don’t see it coming.
As far as literary horror goes, Daphne du Maurier’s story The Birds is one of the greats. Its redolence with gloom and its sense of threat come from her inspired choice of ordinary, unremarkable birds as humanity’s potential destroyer.
Alfred Hitchcock’s movie adaptation keeps nothing of the plot, but needs only that central premise to have the same effect. There they are, lined up on fences, floating on the ocean swell, seagulls and gannets and ravens waiting to attack. Stephen King took on the same technique, creating deadly foes from trucks or toads or toy soldiers.
It’s one thing to fear wolves or bears or stranger beasts, but turning the innocuous into a threat evokes a more disturbing unease.
As the second Test in Christchurch moved towards its close, New Zealand might have reason to feel similarly about The Bird, the least threatening of Australia’s bowlers. His own captain and selectors apparently thought as little of him as anyone else.
Yet, in the end, it was Jackson Bird doing the damage, Bird taking down an obdurate New Zealand resistance with his first five-wicket haul, leaving his side with a chase of 201 that will be a failure if it is not completed on the final day.
You would never have picked it, not with Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson rampaging through the opening session. Here were the snarling beasts of the Australian attack, chowing away like a pair of dogs at a front fence.
Hazlewood was swinging it away from the bat and reversing it in, Pattinson was getting pace and lift. Every delivery did something, edges beaten, pads bashed.
As the chances mounted, catches went down, appeals were refused, reviews were dismissed or upheld in unwanted directions, the Australians’ displeasure grew in visibility and volume to the point that Hazlewood was sanctioned for dissent.
All attention was on their voluble menace. All effort went into withstanding it. Kane Williamson hung back on his stumps, watching for movement and negating it with a soft touch. Corey Anderson was at high tension, leaving and prodding and whacking, but surviving.
Behind all that, Bird slipped unnoticed into the scene, then made it his own. You would never have picked him to be the difference. Or perhaps if you’re a selector, I could simply say you would never have picked him.
It has taken a lot to get him back in the team. He started his career with two Tests, and took 4 for 41 in an innings at the SCG. That was three years ago. Since, a solitary Ashes appearance at Chester-le-Street, with a wicketless second-innings as England set Australia too big a chase.
Bird didn’t get picked because he doesn’t look threatening in a need-for-speed era. Injuries played their part and he slipped back in the queue. Then injuries and retirements struck more broadly, and the queue magically dissipated.
At first, the comeback was as uninspiring as the years of waiting. In Wellington he bowled badly first up due to nerves, 0 for 52 from ten overs while his teammates created carnage around him.
In the second, he finally slipped one through Nicholls to rattle the stumps, but that would be it, 1 for 51 all told. Had Peter Siddle stayed fit, Bird would have made way for Pattinson, but once again injury gave him a chance.
There were two wickets to start off the Christchurch chapter, but neither from inspiring bowling: Opener Tom Latham somehow edges a half-volley to slip, then the last-wicket slog hour with BJ Watling slapping to deep point.
Things only got worse to start the second innings. Latham straight-drove Bird’s first over for ten runs, cover-drove four in his second, and Bird was dragged for Nathan Lyon.
Later, he was given a spell of five overs for 12, but that was it for the day. By stumps, fourth seamer Mitchell Marsh had bowled more.
To start the fourth day, Hazlewood and Pattinson bowled ten overs on the spin, creating chances and immense pressure. Then the double change. Bird dropped short twice, and was put away for boundaries on Williamson’s pull.
Dragged again, while Marsh continued. As far as Test careers went, that looked pretty much it. Enjoy your lunch.
Then everything changed. First a maiden, then another, and in the sixth over after the break he got it.
A batsman edging onto his stumps is always described as unlucky, even though it happens all the time. And probably as many bowled dismissals are via the edge as unassisted. And it still comes down to a mistake, a batsman unable to hit the ball as attempted, just like a catch.
Anderson had been dicey against the wide ball all day. He’d swung repeatedly with bat away from body, been beaten several times, and edged one to gully to be dropped by Marsh. He was a prime candidate to chop on. So he did.
That was the second-last over with the old ball. In the first over with the new, Bird stung Williamson with a smack into his inner thigh. Next ball seamed back in, beat Williamson’s drive, and took a far finer edge into the stumps. Even the stubborn couldn’t deny it was a bowler’s wicket.
Southee went the same over, the man who had smashed 48 in Wellington gone for nought. Three wickets in ten balls, and the next over had Watling edging in front of slip. Then Bird was off, having bowled only five. Steven Smith thought it was time for the dangerous strike bowlers.
By the time Bird came back, No.9 Matt Henry had smashed 32 runs from Australia’s stud pair. Bird didn’t get to bowl to him then. Watling, dander at full elevation, took 6 and 10 from his two overs and he was dragged once more.
Bird returned for the last time with Henry on 66, having swung New Zealand to a lead past 200. It took Bird two balls to knock him over, with a peach that swung in, beat the drive and hit the top of middle.
Five more balls was enough for Trent Boult, who has also caused Australian bowlers headaches since he first took guard against them in Hobart back in 2011. No runs there either: Bird adept at handing out ducks.
A lead that could have swelled by another 30, 40, 50 was stopped dead. A career that could have been stopped dead took on the flush of ruder health. Deceptive appearances can quickly shift: a Bird that looks harmless can change with a turning tide.
This piece was first published in Wisden India