After a dreadful whitewash of a test series in Australia, Alex Braae assesses the questions that will be asked in the wake of it.
So that was awful to watch. Three games, three massive first innings deficits, six batting performances that ranged from brittle to pathetic, and three shocking test match defeats.
It wasn’t meant to go like this. After coming off a year of success, and a solid series victory over England, the men of the Black Caps were supposed to stride over to Australia and stand toe to toe with their big, brutish bullies. They came away from it looking like shellshocked schoolkids, incapable of even hanging on in games that had started to turn against them.
With such a defeat, there will inevitably be questions. Should blame be apportioned, and who should wear it? And is there anything that we can learn from this disaster?
Can anything be done about the paper-thin depth in New Zealand cricket?
Not really, no. And what the Australian series most cruelly exposed was the fact that there are very few players ready to step up. Before the series, there was a lot of talk about how it was the greatest lineup to ever tour Australia. And in fairness, before the series it was, with every frontline player fit and firing. But by the end of the series, you’d have to go back to the 90s to find a Black Caps lineup so stacked with mediocrity.
Depth matters a lot in cricket, because of the attritional nature of seasons on a playing group, and we saw how much Australia suffered when losing three top batsmen to sandpaper bans. But the story here is the same it has always been – their domestic system produces much tougher and hungrier cricketers than ours, because the standard is so much higher. If someone were to give NZ Cricket a billion dollars to improve the test team, it would still probably take 20 years to develop the necessary depth to really challenge Australia on their soil.
Why are New Zealand batsmen so rubbish in Australia?
Unfamiliarity, both to the conditions and what is being thrown at them. While 10 km/h doesn’t feel very fast on a bike, it makes a massive difference when applied to a cricket ball that was already going pretty quick. And consistently, that’s about how much quicker the Australian bowlers were sending it down. New Zealand’s batsmen literally never face attacks like this (especially one supported by such a quality spinner in Nathan Lyon). England’s tour earlier in the summer is the perfect example – lots of bowlers in the 130km/h range, with Jofra Archer occasionally quicker – but even he was down on pace. In the first test in Perth especially, there were signs that the batsmen were simply being blasted out on a quicker deck than they were used to – something that could have been partially addressed with at least one warm-up game, as was noted by commentator and former batsman Jeremy Coney, who hit out at the poor preparation set up for the team by administrators.
And weirdly for such a near neighbour, New Zealanders play very little cricket over the ditch. Far more effort is put into getting them up to speed in subcontinental conditions, and the standard overseas stint (for obvious seasonal reasons) is to go and play County Cricket in England.
Could any selection of bowlers have made inroads against this Australian lineup?
With the benefit of hindsight, probably not. Leg-spinner Todd Astle probably should have been given a run earlier in place of Mitchell Santner, who has his limited uses in the right conditions but was totally non-threatening here. But even assuming every pace bowler was fully fit, it’s hard to see how much more damage could have been done. There simply wasn’t the sort of assistance that the seamers are used to getting from the conditions. Neil Wagner might have ended up with a lot of wickets from the series, but given his success is based on incredible effort and durability (and the wickets tended to come when Australia were already well ahead) that isn’t really something that could have been replicated.
Have we ever seen such a massive run of bad luck and injuries?
The bargaining stage of grief. It’s not unfair to point out that no game finished with a complete XI intact. It’s also not unfair to point out that the DRS ended up giving Australia some pretty sweet marginal calls at crucial moments. But to dwell on that too much is to excuse failure. The illness that swept through the camp hit Williamson, Santner, Henry Nicholls and Jeet Raval hardest, but they were all horribly out of form anyway. And complaints about umpiring decisions ignore the fact that New Zealand tended to use reviews very poorly, and most of the decisions that ended up as Umpire’s Call came at times when the Australian bowlers were monstering the Black Caps anyway.
Is the Test Championship now basically over for New Zealand?
For this round of it, New Zealand’s chances will entirely depend on their next two test matches. They’re at home, which is a relief, but they’re also against India. Given the blossoming of India’s quick bowling attack, there’s now little chance that a green-pitch ambush would work, like it famously did against the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid in 2002. There are three other series this round – home against West Indies and Pakistan, and away to Bangladesh – and the Black Caps absolutely must win all of them to be in contention for the final in 2021. But the reason the India series matters so much is that right now, they and Australia have an enormous lead at the top of the table, and are looking close to uncatchable.
Will anyone in the current Black Caps squad ever get another chance to play the Boxing Day test at the MCG?
Perhaps the biggest positive for New Zealand Cricket from the whole series was the fans delivering when it really mattered. The performances on the park didn’t give the Australians any reason to invite us back, but the tens of thousands of supporters who showed up certainly did. New Zealand isn’t currently scheduled to go back to Australia for tests until at least 2023, and realistically it probably wouldn’t happen for another few years after that. Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls and Kane Williamson are all in their late 20s, so have a chance, depending on the whims of schedulers.
Has there ever been a test series that felt quite so overshadowed by something much more important?
A day of the sole warmup game was called off due to extreme heat. Lights had to be used in the afternoon in Sydney because of the oppressive smoke. Even Australia’s coach Justin Langer was publicly hoping for rain. With people dying and thousands more being forced from their homes by bushfires, cricket has never felt less important. A batting collapse is nothing compared to environmental collapse.