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The first week of January can be a tricky period.
The fortunate eat like champions and blend quality family time with the chance to knock over a good book. But for those left to fend off persistent children yelling “I’m bored” every ten minutes, and who stand for an hour in a queue for fish and chips at an overcrowded coastal town, the promise of a return to work can’t come quickly enough.
For years the default distraction has been cricket – nowadays for some, the disposable BBL, but it is Melbourne’s Boxing Day Test and Sydney’s New Year ‘Pink’ Test, which is the traditional glue that binds holiday-making strangers together.
Want to start a conversation and impress some lumpy bloke you’ve never met, who doesn’t seem to own a shirt, but should? “My kid’s a promising cricketer. I’m thinking of changing our surname to ‘Marsh’ so he gets picked for Australia.”
Or, “Why doesn’t Langer just tell Starc to bowl at the stumps?”
That’s just the sort of thing to win yourself free beer and nodding respect, all around the camping ground.
Meanwhile, Mum arrives back from the shops with a couple of packets of Easter hot cross buns – proof that global warming must have really stuffed up the seasons, and that a few things aren’t quite right with the world.
One of which is the Australian cricket team.
Also wrong is the 32 indecently long years since New Zealand last graced the MCG on Boxing Day – which is no more or no less than the type of justice doled out to cricket nations not deemed to be ‘good box office’, by a rapacious Cricket Australia.
Ironically, that 1987 Boxing Day Test was a classic, remembered by Australians for last man in, Mike Whitney, famously seeing off Richard Hadlee for a result that no BBL fan under 30 would likely comprehend, a thrilling draw.
New Zealanders recall the match more for what happened in the previous over, umpire Dick French declining the opportunity to end the game in their favour, ruling Craig McDermott not out, after he was struck on the pad by Danny Morrison.
While the decision still stuns Morrison to this day, it did prompt a beautiful piece of classically understated commentary from Rod Marsh, who noted, drily, “I think the New Zealanders can regard themselves as reasonably unfortunate there.”
The Black Caps’ most recent visit was in 2015, where an underdone side was thrashed in Brisbane, before scoring 624 in a drawn match in Perth, then coming out on the wrong side of a tight contest in the first day-night Test match in Adelaide.
More recently, if we accept that two matches constitutes a ‘series’ then the Black Caps have just notched up their fourth series win on the trot, against Sri Lanka, Pakistan, England and the West Indies, and now sit at third on the World Test rankings, two places above Australia.
For the most part, their side is experienced and settled, with only three spots truly open to question. One is opener Jeet Raval, who wins plaudits for his old-school ability to blunt the new ball but who, at 30 years of age, after 16 Tests without a century, is yet to convince.
New Zealand has usually favoured an all-rounder, with that slot filled in recent times by the extravagantly named, Zimbabwean-born Colin de Grandhomme. On his day, de Grandhomme can be a punishing batsman and a teasing out-swing bowler, but he was embarrassed in the UAE and, to borrow from racing parlance, there remains a sense that he is a ‘mid-weeker’, not quite up to Saturday, city class.
James Neesham has finally made an encouraging return from long-term injury – which can be traced as far back to the battering he took last time, in Brisbane. With two Test centuries to his name, from 12 Tests, New Zealand will need runs from his heavy, broad bat – which will also allow BJ Watling to bat in his more natural position, at seven.
In terms of spin, Ajaz Patel, Will Somerville, Ish Sodhi and the injury-prone Mitchell Santner have all been used in recent times, all experiencing some form of success, without any of them cementing a place. This will need resolving.
Otherwise New Zealand looks remarkably settled, if a little predictable, in terms of selection, togetherness, and their method of play.
Trent Boult and Tim Southee will be deadly if the ball swings, or look pedestrian if it doesn’t. And left-armer Neil Wagner will land the lion’s share of his deliveries in his own half of the pitch and, despite conceding any element of surprise, will still prove a handful to deal with.
On New Zealand’s slower pitches, Australia’s bowlers found they could restrict Kane Williamson by bowling dead straight, but if the new MCG strip produces the increased pace promised, he’ll be very hard to hold and a delight, as always, to watch.
And look too for Henry Nicholls at five, who stamped himself as a Test cricketer with his brave 76 on debut against South Africa at Centurion, where a fired up Dayle Steyn and Kagiso Rabada threw the kitchen sink at him, and more, and who has now gone on to fulfill that promise with three tons, all of them big ones.
As for the home side, well, where does one start?
The 1-2 series loss to India doesn’t really illustrate the full extent of the difference between the two sides, albeit being a fair and inevitable outcome in the wake of Australian cricket’s turbulent 2018.
Arguments over selection, the people doing the selecting, divvying up fault between batsmen and bowlers, frustrations over pitches, if-only’s about lost tosses, finger-pointing at the negative impacts of T-20 cricket – there are talking points and reasons aplenty for Australia’s current despair.
Truth be told, dissatisfaction with selection has happened forever. While some commentators have made pertinent observations (for example, Ed Cowan on ABC radio asking for a more contemporary selector in the mould of England’s James Taylor), these are mostly issues at the margin, a form of deckchair re-arranging blended with good, old-fashioned venting.
One man’s Handscomb is another man’s Marsh is another man’s Stoinis – that sort of thing.
This performance against India, (and the one that preceded it in the UAE, against Pakistan), was less about Travis Head and Marcus Harris failing to convert good starts, or Australia’s pacemen being blunted by Cheteshwar Pujara, than it was a natural consequence of the catastrophic events of last year.
No major trauma can be brushed away with nonchalance, like a buzzing insect. Time is required, firstly to absorb the destructive impact, then for recovery to begin, slowly, as new paradigms are revealed and understood, then later, as a new order establishes itself and people settle into their roles.
Be in no doubt, any organisation that loses its two top administrators, its coach, its captain and its leading opening batsman in one fell swoop has suffered trauma of the ‘run over by a steamroller’ variety. A maxi-steamroller. It is in no ready position to be winning series against good opposition – and certainly not while Cameron Bancroft was still peeling scabs off unhealed wounds on Boxing Day.
Say what you will about the much talked about, controversial ‘line’, but this served as a solid reference point from which Australia framed its team culture and devised and implemented its tactics.
With that ‘line’ as good as rubbed out, the Australian team has effectively been emasculated, forced to adopt an unnatural, foreign type of game, (in both demeanour and ‘ball management’) all in the name of the team paying penance to an angry fan-base, general public and mainstream media.
Under Tim Paine, there are encouraging signs that a new identity, balancing aggression and good sportsmanship, is being forged, which will eventually hold the team in good stead. Do not be surprised if once players know exactly where they stand and what is expected of them, to see front feet start moving to the pitch of the ball and more balls start hitting the top of off-stump.
So what does all this mean for Boxing Day 2019?
Plenty. If the match started tomorrow New Zealand would be a justified favourite, however Australia has a lot more scope for improvement in 11 and a half months than New Zealand can hope to achieve in that same time frame.
The current Sri Lankan side lacks class and depth and the short, two-match series will boost both the confidence and averages of whoever is selected.
Later there is a one-day World Cup that will involve a good portion of the Test team, and an Ashes series, away. If the prospect of success at either seems far-fetched today, don’t underestimate the positive effect that more time will have on distancing the events of last year from Paine’s new side.
Steve Smith’s return instantly provides a spine to the middle order. And if David Warner returns too, and Usman Khawaja reverts to number three, then, despite a mild concern about similarity in ‘look’ between Warner and newcomer Marcus Harris, runs suddenly begin to look more like they are promised rather than hoped for.
As a rule, Warner does himself few favours whenever he opens his mouth. And even if a largely disapproving Australian public might prefer not to hear from him again, if he is able to say the right things to the bowling group, in a way that genuinely repairs burnt bridges, that may be enough for him to earn redemption – and to lay a far tougher path for the Kiwis than what India just strolled down.
The unwillingness of Australia’s bowlers to submit themselves to more torture at the latter stage of India’s innings in Sydney, spoke to both the joy of Test cricket as a truly brutal examination of body and spirit, and to the same ‘sandpaper-gate’ fog that is yet to lift.
Mitchell Starc in particular, looked like he had become the Ian Baker-Finch of Australian fast bowling, but again, he will have ample time and opportunity to realign his mind, body and technique, and prove more than a handful for Raval and Tom Latham.
I think we’re in for a cracking contest between two sides that – by the time the match rolls around – will be far more evenly matched than what it might appear today. Only 352 more sleeps to go!