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Opinion

Australia vs New Zealand Test series deserves greater fanfare than a March through autumn clash with footy codes

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Expert
27th February, 2024
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If you want an example of how cricket shoots itself in the foot when it comes to looking after the Test format, consider the off, off-Broadway billing given to a clash of the two most recent world champions.

Australia take on New Zealand in Wellington on Thursday for what should be a marquee match-up of the two teams who have been crowned the kings in the only trophy available for the five-day format.

What should at the very least be a three-match contest is being decided (unless of course it’s a split series) over just two Tests.

And instead of being played in the heart of summer, it’s consigned to the changing of the seasons in the Antipodes when one side of the Tasman is engrossed in rugby union while the other has league and AFL taking eyeballs from cricket. 

Nonetheless it should be a cracking contest between the criminally under-rated and terminally ignored Black Caps on home turf against an Australian side looking decidedly shaky with several players searching for a return to form. 

Thankfully the T20-obsessed cricket administrators have rectified this slight on what should be a heavily promoted rivalry by making the return bout in Australia a four-Test series. 

It’s a sad indictment on how the smaller countries have been left behind, not just recently but for decades, in Test cricket that New Zealand have not played a four-match series against anyone since 1999 when Stephen Fleming led them to a famous 2-1 victory in England. 

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How does the ICC expect the Black Caps and the other nations not named Australia, England and India to be able to genuinely compete in Test cricket when they are subsisting on the scraps of two-match and the occasional three-match series while the big dogs are feasting on longer contests. 

On the one hand, Australia should be confident of coming away with a couple of victories in Wellington and Christchurch given that the Kiwis haven’t beaten them at home since 1993 and their only victory since then was the thriller in Hobart 13 years ago.

But there are plenty of perils awaiting Pat Cummins’ players among the politeness of their trans-Tasman cousins.

Australia are going into this series with most of their side having just T20 bashes as their only match preparation over the past month since the West Indies’ boilover win at the Gabba.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 28: Cameron Green of Australia plays a shot during day four of the Second Test match in the series between Australia and West Indies at The Gabba on January 28, 2024 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Cameron Green. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Marnus Labuschagne, Alex Carey, Nathan Lyon and Cameron Green managed to squeeze in a Sheffield Shield match after the home Test summer while the others have been mixing rest with the shortest format.

An immediate switch from white-ball fixtures to red is more often than not the way of the modern cricketer but the Aussies have several question marks lingering over their line-up after a patchy home summer which was masked by their 4-1 win-loss record against a couple of weak opponents in Pakistan and the West Indies.

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Steve Smith proved in Brisbane that he is a class act whether he opens or bats in the middle order but Labuschagne is in the midst of his leanest run in Test cricket, stretching back more than 12 months, Green is yet to prove he can cut it at No.4 and Travis Head has been rocks or diamonds.

The tempo of the batting order appears off with four accumulators bunched together at the top before a couple of cavalier strokemakers come in during the middle order in Head and Mitchell Marsh. 

Because the Aussies have not played a Test in NZ since two matches in early 2016, only five of them have experience in these conditions – Smith, Lyon, Marsh, Usman Khawaja and Josh Hazlewood.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 05: Pat Cummins of Australia celebrates after taking the wicket of Ross Taylor of New Zealand during day three of the Third Test match in the series between Australia and New Zealand at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 05, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Pat Cummins celebrates after taking a wicket against New Zealand at Sydney in 2020. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

They may not admit it but the Australian batters, particularly Smith who would have copped a bumper barrage with a new ball this time around, would not be unhappy that fiery quick Neil Wagner announced his retirement on Tuesday after the veteran left-armer was told he would not be selected for this series.

With Trent Boult on the outer for Tests due to his preference for T20s and Kyle Jamieson out for up to a year with stress fractures in his back, you could be forgiven for thinking the NZ attack will struggle. 

But they have unearthed a new seamer with similar height and pace to Jamieson in Will O’Rourke, who will share the load with captain Tim Southee and Matt Henry with 

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It’s hard to get too much of a read on the recent 2-0 series win over South Africa’s second-stringers but O’Rourke took 4-58 and 5-34 to bowl them to victory in the second match on debut.

When assessing New Zealand’s potential to cause an upset over the Aussies, perhaps a better guide is the corresponding series last year when they upset England by a solitary run in one of the greatest comebacks in Test history after following on.

Central to that win was a superb 132 in the second innings from Kane Williamson and the veteran No.3 has surged back to the top of the ICC Test batting rankings ahead of Smith on the back of a recent purple patch.

Since that epic hundred against England, he has peeled off scores of 121 not out, 215, 104, 118, 109 and 133 not out. That’s seven hundreds in his past 12 Test innings. 

The other subplot to this too-short series is that Australia can’t afford to drop another match in their attempt to defend their World Test Championship crown next year after their Brisbane collapse against the Windies.

Australia are third on the table behind second-placed India and world cricket’s quiet achievers, their opponents over the next couple of weeks. 

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With a five-match homestand against India next on their Test schedule, the upcoming clashes against the two teams above them on the standings will likely determine whether they even qualify for the next final. 

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