With the India v Australia series locked at one match apiece, the sides headed to Bengaluru for a match variously described as ‘the epic decider’ and ‘hmm? Is that on tonight?’
Australia may have to toil for victory on a sleepy SCG pitch after a spirited batting display from New Zealand on day two of the third Test.
The Kiwis yesterday produced their best day of the series, first bowling solidly to prevent Australia from posting a gargantuan total and then moving to 0-63 at stumps.
Stand-in skipper Tom Latham (26* from 81 balls) bunkered down while Tom Blundell (34 from 93 balls) impressed again after his dashing 121 at Melbourne.
NZ had looked terribly flat on day one of this Test after losing captain Kane Williamson, opening bowler Trent Boult and middle-order fixture Henry Nicholls to illness and injury.
Yesterday loomed as a potential nightmare for the visitors, with the Aussies starting just three-wickets down on a docile pitch in the blazing heat.
The Kiwis were buoyed in the first over of the day when Matthew Wade (22) gifted his wicket as he missed a sweep and was bowled by Will Somerville (1-99). New Zealand then managed to tie down Travis Head, who was fresh from a man of the match performance in the second Test in Melbourne.
As he was denied any width, Head dawdled to ten from 41 balls before trying to cut a Matt Henry (1-94) delivery that was too close to his body. That brought to the wicket Aussie captain Tim Paine, who continued his return to reasonable batting form.
While it wasn’t his most fluid innings, Paine’s knock of 35 from 92 balls helped steer Australia beyond 400, and ensured a draw is the best New Zealand can hope for.
With 39, 79 and 35, the wicketkeeper has now made handy scores in the first innings of all three Tests this series, reducing speculation over his grip on the captaincy.
Paine yesterday stuck around long enough to watch young star Marnus Labuschagne (215) score his first Test double ton. The 25-year-old has now piled up 1,190 runs at 85 in Tests since acting as Steve Smith’s concussion substitute in the Ashes.
Labuschagne provided further evidence yesterday he is not just in a purple patch but rather is on track to become one of the world’s most valuable Test cricketers. It wasn’t just the sheer volume of runs he hoarded that left an impression, but the ease with which he scored them on a pitch where no other batsman has looked comfortable.
Across his eight-hour innings, Labuschagne scored at a swift rate of 3.55 runs per over. By comparison, the remainder of Australia’s top seven went at just 2.52 runs per over, and the Kiwis scored at 2.17 last night.
This is one of the more unique elements of Labuschagne’s batting, the manner in which he looks so solid, so immovable while still scoring quickly. None of the Kiwi bowlers troubled him whatsoever during this epic knock.
Even Kiwi man-of-the-moment Neil Wagner (3-66) couldn’t disturb the Queenslander with his unusual short-ball tactics. Wagner again operated with tremendous heart and generous skill yesterday, continuing his fantastic series. Colin de Grandhomme was also admirably disciplined, as he has been throughout the series.
The burly all-rounder has been disappointing with the blade, not prepared to respect the Australian bowlers. With the ball, though, he has been a workhorse, taking seven wickets at 35 while giving up a miserly 2.48 runs per over.
It was the lack of penetration from Henry, Somerville and leg spinner Todd Astle (2-111) that allowed Australia to make a commanding total of 454. The Kiwis cannot win the Test from here.
But if they can maintain the composure displayed by Latham and Blundell last night they are still a chance of earning a draw.