Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson are hopping, lunging and fending. Never before in their Test careers have I seen this champion Kiwi pair look so unsettled. New Zealand might have climbed to second in the Test rankings but the challenge they’re facing now is an alien one.
The pitch is fast and bouncy and Australia are deploying three elite quicks who bowl 140kmh-plus and get the ball to leap alarmingly off the deck. These two accomplished Kiwi veterans have batted with authority in series after series across their long and hugely successful careers.
Now, however, they look like rookies. Williamson repeatedly is getting beaten on the outside and inside edges. Taylor, meanwhile, is desperately fending off a succession of balls destined for his helmet’s grill. Despite their quality, both batsmen look like sitting ducks and the Black Caps already have lost two wickets inside the first ten overs of their innings.
Then Williamson pushes at a ball outside off stump, which nicks through to wicketkeeper Tim Paine and is given a reprieve by the umpire. The Kiwi is a superstar of this format yet even he is out of his comfort zone right now. Soon after Mitchell Starc gets the ball to explode off a length, Williamson edges and Steve Smith launches himself to take a spectacular diving catch.
Normally a batsman would consider himself unlucky in such circumstances. But this time Williamson had already been worked over at length by the outstanding Australian pace attack.
At the other end Taylor is fortunate to still be there, having been turned inside out by the Aussie attack for about an hour. New Zealand are facing the harsh challenge they always expected in Australia.
For whatever reason, the New Zealanders have always been most intimidated by their cross-Tasman foes. Even when logic dictated they should be more wary of India or South Africa, the Kiwis remained most perturbed by the Aussies.
At times that was silly. Now, however, it appears justified. After Australia nearly batted New Zealand into the turf, making 416 from a whopping 146 overs, the hosts grabbed the new ball and cut sick. Tom Latham may have a great Test record and he may have smashed Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but he is unproven against proper Test attacks.
The same goes for Henry Nicholls who, like Latham, failed last night and is yet to make runs against the strongest bowling sides of Australia, India and South Africa.
There are mitigating factors at play here. The Kiwis would love to play more often against the elite teams. But their minimal drawing power means they don’t and that their players aren’t as battle-hardened as those from Australia, England and India.
Meanwhile, even as the remainder of the Kiwi top six subsided, their most seasoned player stood firm. Taylor is in his 13th year as a Test cricketer and with that experience comes wisdom. When Australian spinner Nathan Lyon took the ball, Taylor launched a calculated counter attack. Recognising that Lyon would be needed to bowl long, economical spells in the harsh Perth heat, Taylor went after him immediately, skipping down the pitch and looking to crunch him through the in-field.
A succession of boundaries off Lyon boosted the confidence of Taylor and placed the spinner under pressure.
New Zealand were under enough stress trying to repel Australia’s quicks without needing to worry about their veteran spinner. Even still, Starc kept coming. The Aussie left armer is never more dangerous than with a pink ball in hand and proved that again yesterday. After beating Latham for pace and sucking in Williamson, he got lucky with a Nicholls strangle down leg and then castled nightwatchman Neil Wagner.
Wagner bowled with admirable persistence during the Aussie innings. Yet he must have watched on with envy at the effortless penetration that Starc boasts. While Wagner’s four wickets took 37 overs, Starc grabbed his four in just 11 overs. This rare wicket taking prowess has long been underappreciated by the Aussie public, despite Starc owning 233 Test wickets at 27.
Starc’s Test record is every bit as good, if not better, than Kiwi foe Trent Boult, yet so many cricket fans treat him with disrespect. Starc seems to be on a mission to embarrass these fans and the Aussie selectors who ignored him through four of the five Ashes Tests. Since returning to the Aussie line-up this summer he has hauled in 18 wickets at 15 from three Tests.
Last night he rattled Kiwi legends Williamson and Taylor. If Starc bowls with similar ferocity and precision tomorrow it is hard to see how New Zealand will avoid being steamrolled in their first innings and losing any hold on this series.