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Opinion

Test Mortem: Aussie aura living rent free in Kiwi minds, Marnus officially in a form slump, DRS needs review

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3rd March, 2024
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There are three things that you can count on in cricket – South Africa choking at World Cups, Jonny Bairstow never being out unless two of the three stumps are out of the ground and New Zealand being intimidated whenever they take on big brother. 

New Zealand are a world-class team in all three formats who are renowned for punching above their weight, as evidenced by their victory in the inaugural World Test Championship final in 2021. 

But whenever they come up against the green and gold, they fold. 

They win the odd one-dayer or T20 game over the Aussies but when it comes to Tests or major matches at ICC tournaments, their trans-Tasman cousins are living rent free in their head.

Former New Zealand batter Mark Richardson admitted as such in commentary during the Test loss at the Basin Reserve that there is a psychological barrier that the Black Caps have not been able to conquer. 

Since the Kiwis beat the Aussies in back-to-back series home and away in the mid 1980s, they have lost 26 of 40 Tests, winning just three – a couple on home soil in the early 1990s and the 2011 nail-biter at Hobart.

Against all other opposition since then, they have a positive 86-82 record, with 79 draws. 

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Australia’s bowling was superb and Cameron Green stood tall with his century but after getting the better of day one, the match was there for the taking. 

But not only did they bowl poorly as Green and Josh Hazlewood took a middling day-one total of 9-279 to 383 all out, they looked like rabbits in the headlights with the bat to go from holding the upper hand to being no chance of victory. 

NZ skipper Tim Southee was magnanimous in defeat – perhaps that’s the problem. It’s time for the Kiwis to get angry when they play Australia even if that’s not their natural way of going about their cricket. 

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 03: Cameron Green of Australia celebrates with Mitchell Marsh after taking the wicket of Scott Kuggeleijn of New Zealand during day four of the First Test in the series between New Zealand and Australia at Basin Reserve on March 03, 2024 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Cameron Green celebrates with Mitchell Marsh after taking the wicket of Scott Kuggeleijn. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The door has been left ajar for retiring fast bowler Neil Wagner to come back to ruffle a few feathers with his bouncer barrages in the second Test at Christchurch and that would be a step in the right direction, particularly compared with some of the dross that controversial selection Scott Kuggeleijn served up. 

If the Kiwis go into the next match with the same timid mindset that resulted in plenty of half-hearted batting and a buffet of boundary balls from their bowlers, there will be no one happier than the 11 guys with the slightly different accents from over the ditch who have never ever had a problem when it comes to self-belief.

Marnus officially in a slump

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When it was suggested recently that Marnus Labuschagne was in a slump after a lean run, the nasty old media was to blame for daring to point out that the normally dependable No.3 was no longer reliable in the role.

After making one and two in Wellington on the back of two single-figure scores in the Gabba loss to the West Indies, his average has slipped below 50 for the first time since he scored his first ton in his 10th Test back in 2019.

He’s now gone 36 innings with just one hundred at an average of 31.51 over a 19-match span.

Even having a rare Sheffield Shield outing for Queensland prior to the New Zealand tour didn’t bring the big scores back with Labuschagne making 38 and 45 at the Adelaide Oval.

His second-innings leg-side “strangle” is the kind of unfortunate dismissal which can happen at any time but it couldn’t have happened at a worse time for Labuschagne after he nicked off in the first dig.

Marnus Labuschagne of Australia leaves the field after being dismissed during day two of the First Test in the series between New Zealand and Australia at Basin Reserve on March 01, 2024 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Marnus Labuschagne leaves the field after being dismissed at Basin Reserve. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

He fell after being squared up and nicking to the cordon twice in the previous Test against the Windies. 

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It’s not that bowlers have all of a sudden found a kryptonite ploy which has exposed Labuschagne, this is simply one of those periods that strike all Test batters, even usually world-class operators like the 30-year-old Queenslander.

One of the great strengths of this Australian team, like all dominant sides in any Test era, is that they can carry a player or two who is out of form. 

But the strength intertwined into the baggy green cap is that no player gets a golden ticket to wear it in perpetuity. 

With very few Shield batters mounting a strong case for a call-up, the only apparent alternative would be to recall Matt Renshaw to open with Steve Smith sliding back to first drop but the selectors won’t be contemplating that any time soon. 

And with no more Tests on the horizon until the home summer showdown against India, there will be plenty of time for Labuschagne to return to his best via another English county season with Glamorgan. 

Australia can afford to have a batting unit not firing on all cylinders against Pakistan, the West Indies and a star-struck New Zealand side but they need him, and all their batters for that matter, to be at their best or somewhere near it if they are to take down India for the first time in five series.

Lyon still spin king of the jungle

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Nothing last forever but Nathan Lyon should be nowhere near the finish line of his Test career even though he will blow out 37 candles later this year. 

Test cricket has a long history of spinners who were able to play into their 40s and Lyon underlined his reputation of getting better with age in Wellington with the best figures by any spinner at the venue. 

After taking 4-43 in the first innings, his 6-65 in the second was a master class for spinners in backing their strengths no matter what.

It didn’t matter if the Black Caps defended or attacked, they knew an arcing off break was heading their way and if they were off by a fraction, it would lead to their downfall.

Nathan Lyon celebrates one of his six wickets.

Nathan Lyon celebrates one of his six wickets. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Kane Williamson is arguably the best batter in Test cricket at the moment and normally a fine player of spin but he was made to look second rate by Lyon in the second innings. 

He struggled to lay willow on leather with several deliveries before he fell for the Lyon trap when he inside-edged to Steve Smith lying in wait at leg slip. 

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Todd Murphy and any other young spin wannabe will have to be content with the odd match or tour when a second tweaker is required for the foreseeable future because on current form, Lyon should not only achieve his goal of one more Ashes trip in 2027 but he could even keep on keeping on after that tour.

“I’d love for him to keep going until 2027. The only barrier really is his body,” Pat Cummins said in the post-match media conference.

“If he looks after his body and makes sure he’s right for whatever it is, 10 Test matches a year, I’d absolutely love it if he’s playing until 2027.

“I don’t think there’s much that’s going to get in his way. I already told him – the day he retires I’m definitely giving up the captaincy, because (he) makes my life a hell of a lot easier.”

ICC must review the DRS allocation 

If you needed any proof that teams are getting too many third-umpire reviews in Tests, look no further than Glenn Phillips’ dismissal in the second innings at the Basin Reserve.

Teams get three DRS referrals per innings and they are supposed to be a back-up system to save batters, and bowlers and umpires, from a howler.

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But because they also don’t get docked for umpire’s call decisions that don’t go their way, teams can stockpile their reviews or waste them when there is a miniscule chance of a decision being overturned.

And that was precisely the case with Phillips who played back and across and all around a Lyon off break from around the wicket which was straightening down the line and was immediately given out by Marais Erasmus. 

With New Zealand’s hopes dwindling, he called for the third umpire’s verdict and did not even wait for the final replay to confirm what everyone already knew and was halfway toward the pavilion when the three reds came up to show the delivery was hitting the middle of middle stump.

If the ICC is actually serious about wanting to speed up the pace of the game, cut the DRS referrals and wasted time like this pantomime will be a thing of the past.

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