Just one sleep away from the biggest day on Australia’s cricketing calendar, we assess the five key issues that will decide whether the Aussies can stay on course for a summer clean sweep or whether the Black Caps will force an SCG decider.
1. How will the pitch behave?
Yes, I know. Even the most fervent of pitch enthusiasts are sick of talking about the 22-yard strip in the middle of the MCG. But the biggest question in Australian cricket – for the next 24 hours at least – is how the volatile wicket will behave. Of course, the answer to this will have huge ramifications for this Test match.
The pitch’s chequered history – especially in the last two years – has seen it move from a largely lifeless road to, in the most recent Shield clash, a batsman’s nightmare. Given the pressure on curator Matt Page to produce a fair wicket, it’s likely he’ll revert to conservatism to ensure the Test can go ahead without a blip.
But the distinct lack of blips, or variations, is exactly what got the deck into the firing line in the first place. With hot weather forecast for days three, four and five, perhaps it will be spin that plays the biggest role at the back end of the Test.
2. Can New Zealand break Australia’s ‘bat big, bat once’ mantra?
David Warner has urged his teammates to bat big and bat once in the Boxing Day Test, a continuation of the mantra that has served them well in the last month. In the three Tests this summer Australia has posted 580, 3-589 declared and 416 in their first innings, effectively snuffing out any hopes of an opposition victory.
It’s an emphatic response to the challenge thrown down by Justin Langer before the start of the Pakistan series.
“We’re number five in the world in Test cricket at the moment and there’s a reason for that,” Langer said on November 19. “One of them is that we don’t score 300-plus in the first innings enough. We understand the spotlight on our batting at the moment and the boys have got to embrace that.”
And they’ve done exactly that, with Warner and Marnus Labuschagne setting up mammoth totals in all three Tests. Should they hope to walk away from Melbourne winners, the Black Caps need to quell the big Australian top-order runs in the first innings.
3. Can Santner bridge the gap on Lyon?
While the Aussies outplayed the Kiwis in most departments in Perth, one of the starkest discrepancies was between their respective spinners. Nathan Lyon was instrumental at Optus Stadium, snaring match figures of 6-111, including key top-order scalps. Mitchell Santner, by contrast, returned figures of 0-146. The Black Caps tweaker was relatively expensive, too, conceding 3.6 runs an over.
Santner is a more-than-handy cricketer whose recent century against England underlines his all-round talent. But he has taken just four wickets in his last four Test matches and remains unproven with the red ball. The Black Caps need much more from him in Melbourne.
4. Which returning quick will have the most impact?
Trent Boult’s return couldn’t come at a better time for New Zealand, especially if Page opts for a generous grass covering on Boxing Day. If Neil Wagner is the Black Caps’ dig-in-short aggressor, Boult will play the decidedly opposite role, pitching it up to the top order and enticing them to drive.
But while his presence is a boon for the visitors, the return of James Pattinson for Australia could be equally beneficial. No man stepping foot onto the G tomorrow knows the ground better than Pattinson, who will relish his first Boxing Day outing since 2015. The fiery quick often bowls better when emotions are high and adrenaline is in excess, and a crowd of 80,000 cheering for the Test’s only Victorian may just see him produce his best.
5. Can Blundell blunt the Aussie seamers?
Former Black Caps batting coach Craig McMillan said it would have been “cruel” for the Kiwis to have picked out-of-form opener Jeet Raval for Boxing Day, but it’s arguably equally cruel to pick wicketkeeper-batsman Tom Blundell to assume the role.
Blundell has never opened at first-class level, bats at number five for his domestic side and in his two Test matches has batted at number eight. Nevertheless, as the only batting cover in New Zealand’s 15-man squad – a wholly puzzling move by the New Zealand selectors – he assumes the role after the axe was swung on Raval.
Blundell spoke earlier this week about lasting the first 30 balls before expanding his game, and given the Black Caps lost their first wicket for one and six respectively in Perth, they need him to do as much in Melbourne – if anything, to shield the likes of Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor from the new ball.
The Black Caps hierarchy would be ecstatic if the 29-year-old could grind out a gritty 30 to get his side underway in their biggest Test match in years.