It’s a simple question, with a fairly complex answer. When was the last close, compelling Test series on Australian soil?
On pure numbers, not for some time. SCG patrons have not seen a ‘live’ Test (that is, a tied series heading into the New Year) since way back in 2004. The bluechip series of the summer are invariably over by the Boxing Day Test’s conclusion. Sometimes it’s earlier.
Of course, pure score lines are a reductive way to measure the excitement of a Test series. Most series irrespective of score offer enough narrative to stave off apathy – at least for cricket lovers. But the point remains; few series in Australia since the turn of the century have been tight, engrossing affairs.
In recent years, Australia has either humbled its opposition or been humbled itself. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, England and the West Indies have all been subject to thrashings by the home side, while India and South Africa have dealt a similar dose in the opposite direction.
This summer however, with the imminent arrival of the world’s second-best side in New Zealand, may just be different. For the first time in 15 years, the SCG Test might be alive, the Test summer demanding attention until the very end.
The Black Caps are an uncompromising, unfashionable cricket unit that unlike the Pakistan side of the past fortnight won’t drop their heads. They won’t leak runs and on the whole, won’t play a series of get-out shots that gift the opposition side an advantage.
In fact, they gift opposing sides little at all, one of the key factors that has seen them rise in the world rankings. And it’s for this reason that Kane Williamson’s side may just give us the closest series on these shores we’ve seen in some time.
One thing they have in spades is resolve, mettle, and strength of character. BJ Watling’s 473-ball knock against England less than a fortnight ago was testament to that. Neil Wagner’s in-your-face spells with the old ball, too, typifies their spirit. They’ll scrap until the end, and concede defeat as late as possible.
The Black Caps are a side without obvious star power. In Williamson they have a player who is deservedly mentioned in the same sentence as Steve Smith and Virat Kohli, but the captain’s batting style differs.
Without the flair Kohli or the idiosyncrasies of Smith, Williamson crafts his own style by doing the basics extremely well, repeatedly. This is something that can be said of few batsmen in history. The captain leaves the ball perhaps better than any player.
He plays the ball late and defends with an impeccably high elbow and most importantly, almost never misses when a bowler strays too straight or too full. He makes a skill that frustrates millions around the world look effortless, all while facing the world’s best bowlers.
Culturally, he is an admirable leader. His comments last week in the wake of the racist abuse directed at Jofra Archer were testament to that. Tactically, too, he leads with vision and ensures his side do the controllables well. All else, it seems, falls into place from there.
In twelve tries, only one New Zealand side has travelled across the ditch and returned home victors. The Richard Hadlee-inspired side of 1985/6 went home heroes, and Williamson knows series victory here would perhaps rank second only to World Cup success on the Kiwi cricket fans’ wish list.
The Black Caps are by no means without weaknesses, and have flaws that may just be exploited in Australian conditions.
Jeet Raval’s lean trot means New Zealand, like England in this year’s Ashes series, have immediate issues at the top of the order. With just two scores above 20 in his last 12 Test and first class innings, the hosts will prey on any exposed vulnerability.
The extra pace Australia seemingly has in excess is lacking from the Kiwis, too. Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood all exceed 140km/h after finding rhythm, but Boult, Southee and Wagner (their current first-choice seamers) don’t. Lockie Ferguson is one option they could use to extract more out of the wickets, with next week’s Test in Perth being the obvious opportunity to do so.
Further, Mitchell Santner’s ability to tie down one end is unquestioned, but his capacity to take wickets when the Kookaburra has softened is another question that could define New Zealand’s’ chances in Australia.
Australia start as deserved favourites and the Black Caps will have to fight through every session to be in with a chance. But they know that all too well, for it’s the only way they know.
“Our challenge will be to stand up to make sure we’re in that fight for long periods,” Coach Gary Stead reaffirmed earlier this week. “If we’re in that frame of mind and we can take the games deep, who knows what can happen?”
Whether victory awaits is to be seen. What we know, however, is they’ll scrap til the very end.