A third successive ton from Marnus Labuschagne shielded Australia from a relentless bowling display by New Zealand, who showed great skill and heart in the oppressive heat in Perth yesterday.
Australia and New Zealand both played with admirable discipline in what was a fantastic start to this blockbuster three-Test series.
The Kiwis underlined why they’re the world’s second-ranked Test side by pressuring the Australians from first session to last, despite being without star bowler Trent Boult and battling 39°C heat.
When Australia cantered to 0-37 after nine overs, with Warner looking supreme, signs were ominous for the tourists. All too often over the past 25 years, visiting teams have watched Australia’s top order get off to a sprinting start and then prove very difficult to reel back in.
To keep a lid on Australia in such circumstances requires clear strategies, skilful implementation of those tactics and, above all, generous patience.
Slowly asphyxiating Australian batsmen with dry bowling is always a good option. It’s just that few attacks have the skill and temperament to execute that approach.
NZ are one of those attacks. After Australia’s swift start, the Kiwi bowling unit closed down the game. They set tight fields and bowled accordingly.
From overs nine to 40 they conceded just 2.06 runs per over while dislodging both openers. Tim Southee and Colin de Grandhomme bowled out-swinger after out-swinger on a perfect length on a fifth and sixth stump line.
By maintaining this line they denied Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne the leg-side clips on which they thrive.
Smith and Labuschagne leave the ball better than any other batsmen in this Australian line-up and were forced to do this over and over by Southee and De Grandhomme.
At the other end, tireless left-armer Neil Wagner kept them guessing. In-swingers, cutters, slower balls, yorkers, bouncers – Wagner unfurled his full repertoire.
He did so with great control, allowing him to maintain the pressure built up by De Grandhomme and Southee.
After more than two hours of such attritional cricket, something had to give. New Zealand were banking on the Aussies losing patience. Smith and Labuschagne were aiming to bat for time and let the searing heat tire their opponents.
The Aussie pair did just that, grinding away and making the New Zealand attack toil in the second session.
While Labuschagne and Smith gained the ascendancy in this period, at no stage did the Kiwis wilt. Smith was well below his imperious best and was lucky to be dropped at second slip after slashing at debutant quick Lockie Ferguson.
That loose stroke was a rare moment of poor discipline from Smith, who otherwise played within himself as he sought to find rhythm. Eventually, after 164 balls, Smith was sucked into an obvious trap, trying to hook a Wagner short ball and hitting it straight to leg slip.
It had taken a long time but New Zealand had finally been rewarded for their persistence. Wagner deserved that wicket after bowling with tremendous heart all day. Yet he and his bowling colleagues were outclassed by Australia’s new Test star, Labuschagne.
Even after his heroics in the Ashes, and his demolition job against Pakistan, I still felt this series against New Zealand would tell us just how good Labuschagne is.
Well, now we know. He’s a freak, a young man who justifies all the hype around him.
Granted, Labuschagne is in only is 12th Test and plenty of Australian batsmen have made blazing starts to their Test careers.
Few, however, have done so facing the same adversity as the Queenslander.
Since being vaulted into the Ashes in the toughest of circumstances when Smith was concussed, Labuschagne has churned out 810 runs at 90 from just ten innings.
His remarkable consistency is underlined by the fact that, in those ten innings, he has passed 50 seven times and made another score of 48.
Yesterday, even as Smith laboured and the Kiwi attack excelled, Labuschagne cruised along and achieved something Smith never has – he scored his third Test century in successive innings.
Once more he displayed a watertight defence, great judgment, vast patience, hard running, and a fine range of gears to his batting. Labuschagne was happy for the New Zealand bowlers to be in control for periods, confident he would then have his own passages of dominance.
This capacity to adapt to the ebb and flow of the longest format is in short supply among modern Test batsmen. It is what has set Smith apart from the pack and what is now putting distance between Labuschagne and many of his contemporaries.
Yet New Zealand are still firmly in this match, just one wicket away from exposing Australia’s out-of-form wicketkeeper Tim Paine.
If the Kiwis maintain the high standard they set yesterday over the next month, this is going to be a very tough series for Australia.