Cricket analysts often overstate the importance of a morning session. But in the case of this year’s Boxing Day Test, Friday’s opening two hours will dictate whether New Zealand go home series losers or live to fight on.
Should Australia go beyond 400 and bat well into the second session on Day 2 at the MCG, it would become an almost impossible task for the Kiwis. Of course nothing less than a win will keep them in the series. As such, they must strike early on Day 2, otherwise dreams of replicating the series-winning Black Caps side 1985-86 will slip from their hands.
To do so they’ll need to remove the indomitable Steve Smith, who – likely to the annoyance of Kane Williamson and co – conceded he ‘never felt in’ on the controversial MCG wicket despite peeling off yet another considerable score on the famous ground.
The Kiwis must also work their way through an impressively long Australian tail, a fact that shouldn’t be overlooked in the context of this Test match. With Mitchell Starc likely to bat at No. 10 – a player who averages over 50 at the MCG – one or two early wickets won’t suffice. They need to take wickets in clusters, something they’ve thus far proved unable to do.
The Black Caps fought hard in front of over 80,000 at the MCG on Boxing Day, as they always do. But as they’ve also shown that since arriving in Australia they seemingly lack the cutting edge required to grab the initiative on these shores. Increasingly there are questions whether this attack, on flatter Australian pitches, can take the 20 wickets required to win a Test match. Without a bowler capable of exceeding 140 kilometres per hour or one who can generate sufficient spin to cause issues early in a Test match, they at times lack penetration, waiting for their opposition to blink, rather than forcing eyes shut themselves.
Characteristically the discipline of Kane Williamson’s bowlers was unyielding as the run rate never got away from them on Boxing Day. But when wickets were needed to accelerate a game in which they must force a result they failed to ask enough questions. Having a man dubbed the game’s best ‘problem-solver’ at the other end, of course, doesn’t help.
The Kiwis dared to dream early on Boxing Day. Trent Boult lit up the G while patrons were still strolling in from their Christmas slumber, bowling hard-handed to Joe Burns with a beautiful inswinger. But just one further wicket in the first session meant they wouldn’t capitalise on the decision to bowl first. While Smith went into lunch grumpy at the umpires, Justin Langer would have been more than pleased with his side’s position as the sun broke through the clouds.
Marnus Labuschagne and Smith then edged the patience game, ticking it over to 144 until a stroke of luck for New Zealand saw the Queenslander chop on via the forearm. Ian Smith would say during this partnership that his country were “bowling for a mistake” rather than forcing a breakthrough. Mitchell Santner’s ineffectiveness (0-34 off seven overs) again hurt the tourists as Kane Williamson’s faith in his spinner must be beginning to wane. His figures for the series now read 0-180. Their plan to use him as, at worst, a holding bowler has also not eventuated as runs have flowed at 3.8 an over from the 27-year-old.
The Kiwis would get on top of Matthew Wade later in the day, the left-hander leading a charmed life on his way to a streaky 38. After he departed Travis Head, by contrast, would look fairly comfortable even against the second new ball. It’s not a stretch to say that Friday is perhaps the most important day of his short Test career, a huge opportunity to bed down his spot in the middle order.
The Kiwis know they must strike early on a wicket that is unlikely to give them the assistance they wished for at the toss. Despite the relatively positive feedback about the MCG wicket, Boult would remark during the day’s final drinks break that it was “still on the slower side”. Soon after, a Tim Southee delivery with the new Kookaburra would land well short of BJ Watling behind the stumps. While some have gone early declaring the pitch a pass mark just one-fifth of the way into the Test match, Williamson knows he’s unlikely to get much from the much-discussed 22-yard strip on Friday.
As such, he needs something special from his bowlers. And fast.