Despite the heavy focus on the pace attacks of Australia and New Zealand, it is spinner Nathan Lyon who now looms as the key difference between the teams after massively outbowling Mitchell Santner in the first Test.
Australia last night completed a crushing 296-run win over the highly-rated Kiwis on the back of a nine-wicket haul by man-of-the-match Mitchell Starc. Yet Lyon’s skilful effort was equally significant in the context of this series.
While Santner looked entirely harmless en route to match figures of 0-146, Lyon was a constant threat, continuing his return to form as he snared 6-111. Among Lyon’s haul were the huge wickets of Kiwi stars Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Tom Latham and Henry Nicholls.
So innocuous was Santner in Perth that New Zealand must surely now consider dropping him for the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, which has been a nightmare venue for visiting spinners in recent years. In the past four MCG Tests, visiting spinners have taken eight wickets at 74.
Santner’s lack of impact with the ball has been an Achilles Heel for the Kiwis for several years now. The absence of a decent spinner is a glaring weakness in the starting line-up of the world’s number two ranked Test team.
Since October 2016, the left arm spinner has played 12 Tests and taken just 14 wickets at 63. Two things have earned him selection over that period – his handy batting at number eight, and NZ’s lack of strong spin alternatives.
New Zealand’s back-up spinner in their current Test squad is a very modest bowler. Similar to Santner, Todd Astle is more of an all-rounder than a genuine frontline spinner.
In Astle’s four Tests, which have been spread across the past seven years, he has taken four wickets at 54.
Astle hasn’t exactly been lighting it up in first-class cricket either, taking just 15 wickets at 44 in the past 18 months.
What’s more is that Australia has become a heinously difficult venue for Test leg spinners. Just ask the world’s best wrist spinner Yasir Shah who has been destroyed in Australia, averaging a whopping 89 with the ball from his five Tests and being pummelled last month.
If Yasir could only manage figures of 4-402 in two Tests in Australia last month, what value is there for New Zealand in fielding a vastly inferior leggie in Astle?
At the same time it is hard to see how Santner can have any influence at the MCG and SCG, which have been absolute roads in recent Tests.
While he is a fine white ball bowler, Santner is a very limited red ball spinner. The reason he isn’t suited to Test cricket is apparent when you watch the bowling actions of Santner and Lyon side by side.
Whereas Lyon creates great energy through the crease, which helps him get heavy revs on his deliveries, Santner’s casual action means he earns little turn or bounce.
That is fine in white ball cricket, where batsmen are forced to take on Santner. But in Tests, the minimal wicket taking threat posed by Santner means batsmen can just milk him.
Meanwhile, Lyon at his best can challenge batsmen on all surfaces. Due to the vicious overspin he imparts on his deliveries, he can beat batsmen both through the air and off the pitch.
This overspin creates sharp drop on his deliveries, making it difficult for batsmen to read his length, and also allows the ball to bounce sharply off the surface.
This was exemplified yesterday when Kiwi superstar Kane Williamson was done through the air and then off the pitch by Lyon.
Williamson initially came forward to this Lyon delivery, then hastily moved back into his crease before the ball got big on him, caught his glove and bobbed up to short leg.
Kiwi opener Tom Latham was also undone by Lyon’s misleading flight earlier in the day. The Aussie spinner’s flat trajectory convinced Latham to play back to a ball that he should have met on the front foot. It skidded on and caught him plumb LBW.
Then Lyon dismissed New Zealand’s second highest-ranked Test batsman Henry Nicholls with a far loopier delivery that drifted heavily, before picking up his fourth wicket of the innings when he had tail ender Tim Southee caught behind.
That wicket of Southee earned Australia a massive victory over a side that arrived in this country with huge wraps on them.
While New Zealand could still fight back to win this series, it will take a remarkable effort. The Kiwis have long seemed to have a mental block against Australia in Tests, frequently underperforming against their trans-Tasman rivals. That is one of the reasons why it was so important they started this series strongly.
Instead, they were thrashed, and turned in two meek displays with the bat as they got rolled for 166 and 171.
Australia will have gained enormous confidence from the fact they were able to steamroll the much-vaunted New Zealand batting line-up despite being a bowler down, missing elite seamer Josh Hazlewood for most of the match.
Starc, Lyon and Pat Cummins stepped up brilliantly in Hazlewood’s absence to hand the Kiwis their most painful Test loss in quite some time.