In many ways the second Test threatened to be a reprise of Headingley this past year.
The stage was set. Overcast conditions, the opposing captain putting Australia in to bat first, losing a batsman much earlier this time – in the very first over against a bowling attack more lethal than that of England.
It also looked like the replication of many of the Ashes encounters, including Lord’s 2009, the Oval 2009, Lord’s 2013 and Trent Bridge 2015. In all these instances Australia relinquished the match and even the urn within a session.
According to Cricviz the amount of seam movement on offer over the first two sessions of Day 1 stood at 0.58 degrees. This was in stark contrast to the 0.52 degrees for the same sessions of Australia’s Test against India in 2018 and 0.47 against England in 2017. In any of the few previous years Australia might have capitulated to this magnitude of swing, similar to how they subsided in 2018 against India.
However, not today.
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From the very first over, when Joe Burns fell to a sharp inswinger, New Zealand had announced themselves to a roar. Marnus Labuschagne was greeted with two jaffas that beat the outside edge of his bat, and the Kiwi bowlers kept bowling outside off and sometimes even wider to tempt David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne to force mistakes on a deck that would later get comparatively easier to bat on. But Labuschagne, in excellent form, and Warner, the gallant yet the judicious character he’s become, weren’t going down that easily.
After lots of plays and misses, drives, jaffas and close shaves, an unlikely type of ball produced a breakthrough from Neil Wagner. But it was the perfect delivery to dismiss David Warner, who was castled by the late swing of the full delivery outside off. The thick edge created by the late swing went directly to Tim Southee, who pouched it smartly.
It was time for Steven Smith to mark his territory all over again at the MCG around the mixed receptions he received once he strode out. There was a time when the Kiwi fielders surrounded Smith from almost all directions during Neil Wagner’s bowling. It was as if an anaconda strangled Steven Smith, and it was interesting to see the strategy he would use to break himself out of it. And the crafty right-hander didn’t get lured into all his short deliveries. He instead waited for the correct line and length to pounce on it.
It was a day of complete see-saw until the last hour. At the stroke of Labuschagne’s unfortunate wicket, the scales slightly tilted to New Zealand’s favour, mainly because even after the sun shone bright the ball kept hooping around. Australia got through to tea without facing anymore wobble. Post-tea the home side started teeing off. But Colin de Grandhomme kept them guessing while Mitchell Santner at the other end couldn’t threaten Steven Smith and Matthew Wade that much. Wade, who was living dangerously, finally became the dibbly dobbly seamer’s second victim. The visitors now understood who they needed to dismiss to make it their day.
However, that wasn’t meant to be for them. Left-handed batsman Travis Head was scoring freely too after initially struggling. Steven Smith’s unbeaten 77 took the honours. It indeed was a hard day’s work since the pitch was not docile by any means. From the Burns dismissal until almost the end of day’s play the ball kept hooping and looping around. But this hardened Australia’s dogged effort to stall the collapse has the side prepared for the challenge scheduled to arrive next year at this time.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Black Caps pace trio went unlucky for most of the innings. Yet Kane Williamson’s decision to put Australia to bat first was the most perplexing of the lot. In this decade the Englishmen were the only ones to win Down Under after putting the opposition in to bat first when they did in the same venue back in the 2010 Ashes.
Kane Williamson’s men require this win desperately, but the captain in the wake of creating history might have thrown himself into the queue of Kiwi captains who couldn’t break the trend.
The decision by the ECB to abandon their tour of Pakistan this week, on top of India’s decision to abandon the fifth Test of their series against India two weeks ago, along with New Zealand’s decision to abandon their tour of Pakistan last week has left the cricket world in a state of flux.
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