PERTH: The validity and durability of New Zealand’s ranking and run of success in Test cricket will be tested in the sport’s most hostile environment when they meet Australia on Thursday to open a three-match series.
New Zealand have risen to No. 2 in the world Test rankings after an unbeaten string of seven consecutive series, most recently at home over England.
Those performances and the individual form of players such as captain Kane Williamson, batsmen Ross Taylor and Tom Latham and bowler Neil Wagner, have some observers describing this as the best New Zealand team of all time.
But none of the current squad has played a Test match in Perth, Melbourne or Sydney venues for the series and until they do so, and succeed, it is unlikely they will be able to wear that laurel.
New Zealand have won only one Test series in Australia in 1985 when Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe helped secure that historic achievement. They have won only one of 22 Tests in Australia in the intervening 32 years and overall have won just three of 31 Tests on Australian soil.
Australia won the last Test series between the teams in Australia 2-0 in 2015 and the last series in New Zealand 2-0 in 2016.
In one of its most important summers, New Zealand will follow the series in Australia with a home series against top-ranked India. If they win both series they will pass India to claim the No. 1 ranking for the first time.
But that is tough, perhaps even unthinkable. Australia are in superb form after sweeping Pakistan 2-0, led by the record-breaking batting performances of David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne and the bowling of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood.
New Zealand’s inexperience in Australian conditions is perhaps their greatest handicap. They have had no warm-up in those conditions ahead of the first Test which will likely be played on a fast and bouncy pitch at the new Perth Stadium, and they have little recent experience of day-night cricket ahead of the pink ball series opener.
They will also face unfamiliar heat: temperatures are expected to touch 40 Celsius (104 F) on some days in Perth before cooling in the evening.
The other Test venues are also new to the Kiwis: New Zealand will play the Boxing Day Test on a pitch of unknown quality at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the first time since 1985.
“Coming to Perth is probably the most extreme [conditions] we will face,” New Zealand coach Gary Stead said. “Perhaps if it was Melbourne or Sydney it would be a little more like home, so good on them for bringing us over here first.
“This is a different challenge than we have had for a while. We’ve had a lot of success at home and we play well there generally. But Australia also came and beat us there a few years ago.”New Zealand are sweating on the fitness of Trent Boult, who is recovering from a rib injury and who has 22 wickets in six Tests against Australia and 16 wickets in pink ball Tests at 12.5.
Stead agreed the coming series against Australia and India will test whether New Zealand deserves their current ranking.
“I think after this summer you’ll probably know a lot more,” he said. “When you look at the programme we have England, Australia and then India you’d argue they are up there with the best teams in the world. When we get to end of the summer I think it’s probably an easier time for me to answer that.”
Meanwhile, Australia will field the same team for the third Test in a row when they face New Zealand in Perth under Tim Paine’s captaincy.
Coach Justin Langer has been working hard to mould a steady XI and after thrashing Pakistan in two recent Tests sees no reason to chop and change for a tougher day-night assignment against the Black Caps.
“We’ve been playing some really good cricket, happy with the way it’s going so we’re trying to get a consistent team together,” Paine told reporters on Wednesday.
“And as I touched on after Adelaide [second Test against Pakistan], the great thing is we’ve got guys that are performing really well.
“That’s what we wanted so we’re going to go with the same team.”
That means Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood again lead the attack, with James Pattinson and Michael Neser missing out.
Paine suggested that might change for the next two Tests in Melbourne and Sydney, which are closer together.
“But at the moment the three big fellas are fit and firing,” he said.
Australia have momentum going into Thursday’s game. They have never lost at the new Perth Stadium and have won all six day-night Tests they have played.
Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2019