Short balls dismissed each member of Australia’s top six in the second innings of the first Test, ensuring New Zealand will inundate the home side with bouncers during the Boxing Day Test.
Despite it being well known that New Zealand bowl a ton of short balls – Neil Wagner in particular – Australia had no clear plan as to how to counter this unusual bowling strategy.
In the days before the first Test, I flagged that Wagner would use Bodyline-style tactics against Australia.
Wagner then proceeded to send down an extraordinary 193 short balls in that match, equivalent to 32 overs, the most recorded for any bowler in a Test in Australia, according to leading cricket analytics company CricViz.
His approach was so successful that he finished the match with seven wickets, including the short-ball dismissals of stars Steve Smith (twice) and Marnus Labuschagne (once).
The effectiveness of Wagner’s bouncer barrage even prompted Tim Southee to follow suit. The right-arm swing merchant, who has never been known as an intimidating bowler, abandoned his typically full length and began peppering the Aussies with short stuff. Southee was also rewarded, taking nine wickets, including four from short balls.
New Zealand’s bowlers will undoubtedly continue in this vein at the MCG. Not just due to the fact it troubled the Aussie batsmen in their second innings at Perth, but also because the top-of-off-stump 125 to 135 kilometre-per-hour seam bowling that often prospers on juicier NZ pitches tends to be cannon fodder on the sleepy MCG track.
New Zealand stuck to that traditional bowling style on their last tour of Australia. It was a categorical failure, apart from the day-night Test in Adelaide, which was played on a green surface.
The Kiwis also bowled a lot fuller in the first innings at Perth and that resulted in Australia cantering to a match-winning total of 416. I expect NZ to try to swing the ball in the first ten to 15 overs before quickly beginning the short-ball bonanza.
That means Australia’s batsmen will need to be better prepared than they were in Perth, where we saw chopping and changing of their strategies against the short ball. Due to the heavily-stacked and cleverly-placed leg side fields set by the Kiwis, the Aussie batsmen appeared in two minds.
At times they attacked the short ball, seeking the punish the NZ bowlers for this telegraphed tactic. At other times they tried to merely blunt the short ball, playing the waiting game. In between they occasionally tried to milk singles off the short ball, rolling their wrists on gentle pull and hook shots.
In the end, though, most of the Aussie batsmen lost patience and gifted their wickets. That is the aim of the Kiwi approach.
They know they don’t have fearsome quicks who can intimidate batsmen with bouncers like Mitchell Starc or Pat Cummins. Instead they employ the short ball the same way the likes of Josh Hazlewood and Vernon Philander use the top-of-off stump line. It is intended to bore the batsmen and to pressure them into making a mistake.
All good Test batsmen have a clear plan how to combat that time-tested style of pace bowling. They have to, given how prevalent it is. By comparison, it is an alien experience to face the amount of short balls that the Kiwis served up in Perth. As a result, few batsmen have honed a counter-strategy. The Aussie batsmen were trying to make it up as they went along in the first Test.
Even the world’s best batsman Smith had no precise answer. The home batsmen will have to prepare Plans A, B and C against the Kiwi bouncer buffet so that they can employ the correct approach depending on pitch conditions.
If the MCG is a road like it has often been in recent years, then they may look to take on the short-ball storm. Whereas if there is variable bounce in the pitch, like we saw in Perth, it would be wiser for them to exercise caution and let the Kiwi quicks tire themselves out.
This short ball war has added a curious element to the trans-Tasman series.