By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A resurgent New Zealand have landed in Australia with high hopes of upsetting Steven Smith’s rebuilding side in a three-match series capped by test cricket’s first day-night clash.
New Zealand have not won a test series on Australian soil since 1985/86, when a marauding Richard Hadlee was in his pomp, but Brendon McCullum’s team may have their best chance to break the drought against vulnerable opponents in the throes of transition.
The series continues a calendar-long feast of sporting rivalry between the Antipodean nations, who face off in the Rugby World Cup title-decider in London on Saturday and have also clashed in rugby league and netball this year.
For McCullum’s Black Caps, however, it offers the chance to extract a measure of revenge for their stinging World Cup final loss in March, when they were destroyed by the hosts in front of a baying Melbourne Cricket Ground crowd.
Then, New Zealand’s run to the final had a fairytale quality, and their team were cast as a swashbuckling band of upstarts crashing a party for cricket’s traditional powers.
McCullum’s side have since established themselves as contenders in the red-ball game, splitting an enthralling test series 1-1 on English pitches, where Australia were found wanting in a subsequent 3-2 Ashes defeat.
The Black Caps can expect little of the patronising tone that has welcomed weaker New Zealand teams of the past in Australia but more than the usual serving of outright hostility from local crowds.
Australian fans are unaccustomed to disappointment, having not witnessed a test defeat on home pitches for three years and are likely to give McCullum’s team a similarly spirited reception to that which greeted England during the 5-0 whitewash in 2013/14.
Australia may only dream of such dominance now, with new captain Smith inheriting a side depleted by the retirements of former skipper and master tactician Michael Clarke, opening batsman Chris Rogers and all-rounder Shane Watson.
Mitchell Marsh is a worthy candidate to carry the all-round duties, but New Zealand seamers Trent Boult and Tim Southee will be eager to tear into Australia’s top order reinforcements Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja, who have been named for next week’s opening test in Brisbane and the second match in Perth.
Burns showed himself an able replacement for Rogers in scoring two half-centuries against India during the last home summer but Queensland captain Khawaja is on his third life after failing twice before to cement his place at the highest level.
Australia’s bowling is more settled and will remain a serious handful on home pitches, even with veteran left-armer Mitchell Johnson having lost a yard of pace this season.
The buildup to the series has been overshadowed by controversy over the fitness of the pink ball to be used in the series-ending day-night test at the Adelaide Oval.
Players have complained the ball, the result of years of painstaking development and testing, can be hard to see and fear it may not last the 80 overs required of the usual red ball.
Cricket Australia have insisted the ball is ready and dismissed suggestions the match could be rescheduled.
If successful, the game could prove a watershed for the format and encourage other nations to adopt a concept that promises bigger crowds and more broadcast revenues from lucrative prime-time scheduling.
What is certain is that the ball cannot be improved upon before Adelaide’s opening day on Nov. 27.
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)