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Rejigged Aussie batting line-up fails again as top-order collapse puts Black Caps on track for drought-breaking Test win

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10th March, 2024
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Australia’s rejigged batting line-up has again failed to leave them on the brink of their first loss in New Zealand since 1993 after a calamitous effort on day three of the Second Test in Christchurch. 

Set 279 for victory after the Black Caps’ tail wagged, the Aussies finished Sunday’s play on 4-77 after the top order collapsed in dramatic fashion.

The Australian selectors were adamant they had chosen the six best Test batters in the country when they recalled Cameron Green and elevated Steve Smith to opener when David Warner retired in Sydney at the start of January.

But the experiment has failed and they will rely on hot-and-cold duo Travis Head and Mitchell Marsh to save them on day four with a further 202 runs needed to avoid their first loss to the Black Caps since 2011. 

They have not lost a Test on NZ soil in 31 years but the home side will enter the decisive fourth day as heavy favourites after fighting their way back into the match following an opening-day total of just 156. 

For the Australians to win, they will have to chase down the second-highest fourth-innings tally at Hagley Oval, just shy of New Zealand’s dramatic 8-285 on the final ball against Sri Lanka last year.

With only a struggling Alex Carey and the tail to come, New Zealand are in the box seat but they will still need to overcome their history of falling short against the Aussies to secure what would be a famous triumph.

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On only one other occasion, when Australia hit 3-201 in their most recent visit in 2016, has a team reeled in a fourth-innings target greater than 132 at the venue although this is only the 13th Test since the ground’s opening match a decade ago.

Australia have lost six wickets before reaching 200 in their past six innings and have only passed 400 once in their 10 completed innings this summer home and away.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 10: Matt Henry of New Zealand celebrates after dismissing Steve Smith of Australia during day three of the Second Test in the series between New Zealand and Australia at Hagley Oval on March 10, 2024 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Matt Henry celebrates after dismissing Steve Smith. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Smith was the first Australian batter to depart in the second innings when he was trapped in front by Matt Henry for nine. 

The 34-year-old has been tentative outside off stump, playing at balls that a traditional opener would let through to the keeper and in the first innings getting out to one that he shouldn’t have shouldered arms towards.

This time around he played all around an off-cutter and after calling for a review, had to trudge off after three reds showed umpire Nitin Menon’s original decision was spot on. 

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Apart from his unbeaten 91 in the Gabba loss to the West Indies, he has not scored more than 31 in his other six completed innings as an opener. 

It was noble of him to offer to open when no other candidate wanted the role but Australia have weakened their middle order by sending their star batter to the top to adapt to a role that does not suit his style.

Marnus Labushagne seemingly returned to form in the first innings with a fighting 90 but after he was given an early life when Daryl Mitchell dropped him off Ben Sears at first slip, he went for six soon after when the debutant fast bowler gleefully accepted a return catch near his ankles.

Usman Khawaja continued his recent run of middling scores when he snicked Henry to the cordon on 11 and Tim Southee held onto a diving chance in the veteran seamer’s 100th Test. 

And when Cameron Green played Sears onto the wicket when he failed to properly let a ball go past his off stump, the Aussies were reeling at 4-34.

Head (17) and Marsh (27 at a run a ball) counter-attacked in their short stint at the crease before stumps to give Australia a fighting chance heading into the final day. 

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Veteran spinner Nathan Lyon said the mood was sombre in the visiting change room as the wickets tumbled.

“When it happens, it’s not the greatest change room to be in,” he said.

“We’re on a path and on a journey, on a dream to become one of Australia’s great cricket teams … I’m not saying that we are at the moment. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The Black Caps started the day with Rachin Ravindra and Tom Latham looking to build on the overnight lead of 40 but the opener fell to Pat Cummins for 73 after adding just eight more runs to his tally.

Ravindra and Mitchell consolidated with a superb 123-run partnership, taking advantage of the best batting conditions of the match as the wicket flattened out. 

The second new ball brought three quick wickets for the tourists – Mitchell fell for 58 when he lost concentration against Josh Hazlewood. After trying to blaze him away on the previous delivery, he nicked off to Alex Carey, one of 10 catches for the match for the Australian keeper. 

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Ravindra looked on track for a century but departed on 82 when Cummins, for the second time in the innings, struck with the first ball of a new spell, finding the outside edge of the young left-hander’s blade. 

When Tom Blundell was claimed by an athletic Labuschagne catch at cover off a Green half-tracker, the NZ innings had the wobbles with a lead of 200 on the board and just the tail remaining. 

But a whirlwind 44 from 49 deliveries from Scott Kuggeleijn, which included five fours and two sizes, swung the momentum back towards the hosts. 

The Australian attack’s Kugge-line was OK but their Kugge-length was too short as the noted six-hitter at domestic level swung freely to cow corner. 

Mitchell Starc in particular was wasteful with two ordinary spells with the second new ball.

Nathan Lyon bagged three wickets to eventually mop up the tail with Cummins’ 4-62 easily the best of the Australian bowlers although Hazlewood deserved better than the 1-70 he ended up posting. 

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