This has been a disastrous tour of Australia for New Zealand and yesterday they reached a nadir as a cobbled-together group of Kiwi cricketers trudged through the first day of the SCG Test.
Missing skipper Kane Williamson, star bowler Trent Boult and middle-order fixture Henry Nicholls due to illness and injury, the Kiwis scrambled to compile an XI, even flying in debutant batsman Glenn Phillips the night before the Test.
Given a full-strength NZ team had been thrashed by Australia at the MCG, leaving them 0-2 down in the series, it seemed unlikely this second-string line-up could compete. By the end of yesterday they were on the verge of being batted out of the Test by Australia, who cruised to 3-283.
With the Kiwi attack badly lacking class or penetration, it will take an enormous effort for the visitors to avoid defeat.
Australia are a juggernaut when they bat first at home – they have lost only one of their past 26 Tests in those circumstances.
So listless were NZ on day one that it is hard to see anything but another easy Australian win unfolding. Brendon McCullum is a vocal supporter of the Kiwi side, which he last month described as the best Test team in New Zealand’s history. Yet the former skipper made a number of scathing comments on TV commentary throughout yesterday’s play, referencing the visitor’s obvious lack of energy in the field.
He wasn’t wrong. NZ looked as flat as a military haircut from the first hour, despite a green SCG pitch offering plenty of seam movement and bounce early on, and the ball swinging appreciably.
Even when Joe Burns was caught behind for 18, or when Neil Wagner dismissed David Warner for 45 just after lunch, the Kiwis appeared devoid of spirit. Aside from a handful of players, most notably Wagner and stand-in skipper Tom Latham, they seemed to be just going through the motions.
McCullum said he was shocked by this tame display given the golden opportunities afforded to rookies and fringe players like Glenn Phillips, Todd Astle, Will Somerville, Jeet Raval and Matt Henry.
All of those cricketers are fighting for places in New Zealand’s next Test series. Collectively and individually they have a huge amount to play for, yet the side largely sleepwalked through the day.
The three bowlers NZ brought into the side were innocuous. Henry, Astle and Somerville combined to return 0-168. None of them looked Test standard yesterday – although to be fair to Somerville, he was excellent in his three previous Tests, all in Asia, taking 14 wickets at 25.
Yet the 35-year-old off-spinner was barely more threatening than left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner was in the first two Tests. Bowling from close to the stumps, Somerville did not trouble the home batsmen with his flight and earned minimal turn.
The sad state of NZ’s spin stocks – their biggest weakness as a Test team – was further highlighted by the performance of Todd Astle. While he wasn’t hammered by the Aussies, he never appeared likely to take a wicket and now averages 66 with the ball from his five Tests.
Astle looked like exactly the player he is in NZ domestic cricket – an all-rounder, not a front-line spinner.
Henry, meanwhile, again showed he is a long way from becoming a good Test bowler. Across his 12 Tests he has averaged a whopping 51 with the ball. Henry does not possess a single standout skill.
He is not especially accurate, does not earn significant swing, seam or bounce, and bowls at a gentle pace in the 130-135kmh range. Tim Southee would have been a better selection, but was curiously dropped despite doing a reasonable job in the first two Tests.
New Zealand are not dead and buried. But they will need to make major inroads with the second new ball this morning to stay in this Test.
Realistically, they need to roll Australia for less than 380. That will be a challenging task given the imperious form of Labuschagne (130*), the solid touch of Matt Wade (22*), Travis Head and Tim Paine, and Australia’s strong tail, with Mitchell Starc coming in at ten.
Labuschagne yesterday constructed the latest in a sequence of nigh-on flawless Test innings. This is beginning to seem less and less like a purple patch, and more and more like the birth of a new Test superstar.
Since he returned to the Aussie side as the concussion sub for Steve Smith in the Ashes, the Queenslander has churned out 1105 runs at 85.
Labuschagne has been so remarkably consistent that he has passed 50 in no less than ten of his 14 innings in that time. He will begin today with a weak NZ attack at his mercy and a first Test double ton there for the taking.