It is almost a cliche to say it, but New Zealand will really never have a better chance to beat Australia when they start their three-Test tour of the country next week.
Yes, people said this last time they came over and the time before that too – when, in fairness, they drew the series. But this time, they really will never have had a better chance.
No matter what version of Australia you get – the kind that hit 600 against Pakistan or the kind that get bowled out for double figures against South Africa – winning a series in Australia is one of the great prizes of Test cricket. The Black Caps covet this more than anywhere else.
New Zealand are riding the crest of a wave of a golden generation of talent. For once they don’t have just one elite player in the batting or bowling order on whom they pin all their hopes and dreams; this time they have several elite players across multiple positions in the starting XI.
And that’s before you mention Kane Williamson, who is a couple of steps above elite. He’s a rightly vaunted member of the big three – formerly the fab four when Joe Root was in form. The man will eventually own nearly every batting record a Kiwi can own. He owns most already.
We’ll get a bit more on Williamson later. Let’s start at the top.
This man is a contender to slot into one of the World XI openers slots for 2019, with three centuries and a 65 average to show for the year. He has previously battled against Australia in the past, but he was a young man then. At 27 he’s entering the most productive years of a batsman. Expect him to be able to play against the Australians more confidently this time. He doesn’t match David Warner, but he would be a solid match-up against Joe Burns.
Ravel is New Zealand’s other opener. Frankly, he’s not in form, and even when in form he’s probably not up to this challenge. He’s the chink the chain at the moment. Sadly there’s no other top-order option busting to get into the side either. New Zealand will be hoping beyond hope that he can just stick around long enough to take some shine off the new ball before Kane Williamson comes in.
Speaking of Williamson, he’s the prized wicket and the start of a very strong middle order. He’s the one Australia will concentrate most of their firepower on. Absurdly gifted, he’s not as run-hungry as Steve Smith, he’s not as visibly passionate as Virat Kohli, but he makes up for that by supreme discipline and technique. He’s unflappably calm.
Of the three he’s aesthetically the most gorgeous player to watch. He’s also got a great record away from home. He’s hit a century against all teams. He’s hit a century everywhere except South Africa – and more chances will come to do that. He’s confident on all pitches. If New Zealand are to win the series, he’ll need to hit a big score in at least one match. Back him in to do it.
Elite. Class. This will likely be his last tour of Australia. He more than most will be desperate to fly home with the trophy. While it’s not the WACA, he’ll be happy to start in Perth. He flogged 290 chanceless runs last time and was able to turn the final day of the English series into a training run, chalking up a cheeky ton to boost his confidence across the Tasman.
When he’s in form he’s very good. He’s better than the No. 5 options for Australia. He was quiet against England, but Australia need to keep an eye on him.
Enter into a staring contest with this man at your own peril. He is the shoo-in pick for the World XI keeper position this year. A keeper-batsman or a batsman-keeper, it doesn’t matter – he’s good at both. He bats at No. 6 but could comfortably bat higher. I can think of no-one in world cricket who values his wicket so highly. He won’t give it away, and it will take a good piece of bowling to get him out.
Colin de Grandhomme
A quality all-rounder, De Grandhomme was part of a triumvirate that turned it around in the first Test against England. Spirited with the ball. He will try his best. He probably won’t be able to dislodge the wickets of a Dave Warner or Steve Smith, but he’ll make runs hard to come by for others.
He’s not the greatest spinner out there. Serviceable would be the best word for him – Nathan Lyon is clearly the better spinner – but the century he scored against England was not a surprise to those who have followed him. He can bat. It was only a matter of time until he got one. He’ll get more. Unlike Pakistan, where the tail began at No. 8, Santner is the continuation of a strong lower-middle order. He will provide valuable lower-order runs.
When he’s on song he’s a quality bowler. He can be a little like Mitchell Starc in that he goes through some unplayable moments, but he can also bowl some tripe. For New Zealand to win he needs to be in unplayable mode. But that’s not to diminish his abilities – he’s a world-class paceman and has been for a while. Like Mitchell Starc, he can also hit some lusty lower-order sixes. Lots of them. He hits so many there’s no other current international cricketer who’s hit more in Test cricket.
Elite. He’s part of a bowling attack that is much like Australia’s. One of a triumvirate. He can bowl a lethal swinging delivery. He’s consistent. He probably sits behind Richard Hadlee and Shane Bond as New Zealand’s best fast bowler. Elite company. Only now does the tail begin. New Zealand will be hoping he can recover from his injury in time for the first Test. He’ll be needed for all three if New Zealand are to win.
Wagner was late to Test cricket, and even when he made his debut he took a while to get into it. But he’s now in terrific form, with 13 wickets across two Tests against England. He never gives up and shows tremendous spirit no matter what the score. He’s world No. 3 for good reason. The last player of this dynamic pace trio.
Except position 1, that is a world-class Test XI. That is a Test XI you take to Australia to win.
In the past a New Zealand team would have a dusting of talent. A Richard Hadlee, Martin Crowe, Stephen Fleming, Daniel Vettori, Shane Bond, Brendon McCullum or Chris Cairns. New Zealand also didn’t have much luck. Cairns missed more Tests than he played, Shane Bond’s frame just couldn’t cope with his talent, Hadlee was a lone voice for a long time, ditto Crowe. Fleming and Vettori held teams together through sheer grit, McCullum through sheer spirit.
But New Zealand have struck gold this time. Latham, Williamson, Taylor, Watling, Southee and Boult are world-class and in the same team. Wagner, De Grandhomme and Nicholls would be prize selections in almost all international teams too.
On balance Australia probably just edge New Zealand out in the openers department, and largely due to Warner’s return to Australian pitches. New Zealand have the edge over Australia in the middle order. Marnus Labuschagne is quality, but Williamson is something else. Smith obviously has top billing ahead of Taylor in position 4. Nicholls is a better cricketer than Travis Head. Watling is not a flamboyant as Matthew Wade, but he’s so much more dependable. De Grandhomme probably just edges ahead of Tim Paine in position 7.
Among the bowlers Nathan Lyon is better than Santner, but Santner provides valuable lower-order runs. The pace batteries of both teams will be exciting to watch. All are in good form and all a smart bowlers. I’d say because it’s being played in Australia, Mitchell Starc-Patrick Cummins-Josh Hazlewood have the nod over Southee-Boult-Wagner. If it were being played in NZ, I’d say the reverse.
This is a golden generation without compare in New Zealand cricket. But it’s a once-in-a-generation alignment. New Zealand cricket doesn’t have a production line of talent like Australia does. There’s rare depth, but it won’t last. This is like the Socceroos in 2006-10, when over half the starting XI were from top-tier European league clubs.
I can’t wait.