The Kiwis have had a shocking tour abroad to Australia – there is no doubt of that.
Horror injuries to fast bowlers Lockie Ferguson and Trent Boult have been compounded by the freak virus striking down captain Kane Williamson and others. Combine this with two dismal efforts in Perth and Melbourne, which both resulted in humiliating defeats, and New Zealand cricket is currently in a state of frenzied disarray.
Without the tireless efforts of Neil Wagner and Tom Blundell’s magical MCG ton, there would be no positives to take out of the three-Test Chappell-Hadlee series.
There have been many disappointing parts of their performances. The lack of fight in both the top and middle-order have left them looking weak in the batting department, while their lack of bowling depth has been cruelly exploited in warm Australian conditions.
But what has been New Zealand’s biggest flaw in turns of what has hurt them most in this Test series has been the way they have deployed spin.
Sure, Mitchell Santner is not a world-class Test spin bowler. He is much more effective in limited-overs cricket where his inability to consistently land orthodox balls is obscured, and it takes a fewer amount of overs to frustrate batsmen into incorrect shots.
His two Test matches in Australia weren’t up to scratch – he was expensive and struggled to take wickets. A glint of positivity is that he is definitely not the first foreign spin bowler to come to Australia and be largely unsuccessful. Yasir Shah has a much better Test record yet he experienced the same fate for the second time just over a month ago.
Despite his shortcomings as a frontline Test spinner, the way he was used in Perth and Melbourne barely gave him the opportunity to take wickets and clamp down on the rampant Aussie bats. This has been proven further in Sydney, where the use of Todd Astle and William Somerville have been similarly poor in terms of aggression and belief.
Kane Williamson is a wonderful Test batsman and a formidable captain of a resurgent New Zealand which punched above its weight to reach second on the ICC Test match rankings. But the way he deployed Santner was abysmal.
The young Kiwi offy wasn’t seen until after lunch each time New Zealand bowled in the first innings. Not a prodigious turner of the ball, one must wonder how Williamson and New Zealand management expect Santner to dismiss world-class players of spin such as Steve Smith if their premier spinner doesn’t receive the aid of a new-ish ball?
Unlike the way Australia and other nations introduce their spinners (take South Africa and Keshav Maharaj for example) into the attack as early as the tenth over, New Zealand seem to view Santner and other spinners as a back-up, last resort option for when their pace bowlers can’t make breakthroughs.
Sure, Nathan Lyon is a freakishly good off-spin bowler, but throughout his early years where he was developing his craft he received the trust from an aggressive captain in Michael Clarke. Despite his form, he often received the ball early on and was treated as an attacking weapon who could take a swag of wickets and dominate a Test match.
Santner was never gifted that opportunity. His displays were less than pretty, but how can one expect a young spin bowler with low confidence to spin out some of the world’s best bats at home with an old ball and no trust from their captain?
What Sydney has proven is that this isn’t a mindset solely with Williamson. It is a negative view from New Zealand cricket and its senior figures.
Obliging with the pointless touring party convention of picking two spinners for Sydney, both Astle and Somerville weren’t seen until long after the Kookaburra ball had softened up and lost all of its shine. It’s a serious flaw in tactical nous by New Zealand, and it has been a key contributor to the long hours they’ve spent watching Marnus Labuschagne and co carve up their bowling attack.
As Shane Warne famously said, if a pitch seams and swings then it will always provide sideways movement for spin bowlers. Until New Zealand realise that they won’t produce a spin bowler worthy for the Test arena without going through the hard yards of using them aggressively and introducing them while the ball is new to attack the top order, they won’t be able to compete with the world’s cricket heavyweights consistently.