Jan 2, 2020
The Report by Daniel Brettig
Australia 3 for 283 (Labuschagne 130*, Smith 63, De Grandhomme 2-63) v New Zealand
If it feels as though there has been something monotonous about this series, then that is because there undoubtedly has been. Australia’s top order, given the chance to bat first in each Test, has responded with diligence, efficiency and not even the faintest sign of a collapse until a bridgehead has been established. New Zealand’s bowlers have had good spells and good plans, but not quite the overall quality or sharpness to burst through.
Once again, at the SCG, it was Marnus Labuschagne, with his fourth Test century in seven innings at home this season. He provided the spin of the innings, with plenty of assistance from a forbearing Steven Smith, who wore down Neil Wagner and company for the third match in a row without succumbing to the frustration New Zealand’s tactics were devised to create.
David Warner and Joe Burns did their bit in the early overs when the ball was moving most lavishly. And, in the shadows of stumps, Matthew Wade piled into Wagner with a glee for the pull shot that underlined the fact that, unlike in Perth where he wore lots of blows to the body, this match is taking place after the series has already been decided.
New Zealand, though, were facing an even tougher commission than previously in the series. The visitors were forced into no fewer than five changes to their team from the MCG Test. Flu-like illness swept through the visiting team in the lead-up to the match, ruling out their designated captain Kane Williamson alongside Henry Nicholls and Mitchell Santner.
Tom Latham was named New Zealand’s 30th Test captain, with Jeet Raval recalled, Glenn Phillips on debut, and Todd Astle, Will Somerville and Matt Henry coming into the bowling attack in place of Santner, Tim Southee and an injured Trent Boult. Henry was preferred to Southee on account of the former being physically fresher for the task.
Conditions at the SCG were somewhat overcast to begin with, and the pitch has a combination of green grass and bare patches that should rough up to take increasing amounts of spin as the game goes on. The skies began to clear shortly after the start of Australia’s innings, as Henry shared the new ball with Colin de Grandhomme, with Wagner kept in reserve.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given all the changes, neither Henry nor de Grandhomme were able to get their lengths right for long enough to test Warner or Burns in the first hour, even though the occasional full delivery showed plenty of potential for movement in the air or off the pitch.
Warner and Burns, therefore, were able to get Australia off to a sound start, although Burns’ discomfort when the ball was pitched up to the bat remained obvious throughout. Latham eventually swung de Grandhomme around to the Randwick end and immediately found reward: a fullish-length ball swung from the line of middle and off stump, turning Burns around in defence and taking an edge through to Ross Taylor at first slip.
Labuschagne immediately showed his proactive approach to batting by moving well forward and across to look to cover the movement. Alongside Warner he helped move the scoreboard along with greater urgency and an increasing amount of ease over time.
Latham called upon the former New South Wales offspinner Somerville for three morning overs, before Astle delivered the final over of the session in bright sunshine. Wagner returned after lunch and his short balls paid off as Warner pulled a leg-side delivery around the corner and into the hands of de Grandhomme, who did well to hold on at leg gully.
Smith, who had spoken before the match about how he had rationalised his series so far as an effective blunting of New Zealand even though Wagner had dismissed him four times, took things to another level of obduracy as he blocked out Wagner and Astle for an hour before starting to score. He consumed 39 balls for his first run, and 143 for 50.
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Labuschagne’s rate was much steadier, and he had little trouble passing 50 for the sixth time in seven Test innings this season. By the interval, he looked to be well on the way to a fourth century in the same sequence. New Zealand, for all their efforts, were staring another tall Australian first innings in the face.
Smith, despite never really being able to break clear, persisted until Labuschagne had celebrated his century and the second new ball had been taken, whereupon de Grandhomme found just enough away swing and bounce to claim an edge as Australia’s No. 4 hovered ever so slightly onto the back foot. The benefit of Smith’s graft was seen as Wade launched into a punchy late cameo that roused a crowd of 36,420 from their early evening torpor.
Many of the empty seats at the SCG might have been taken up by the many thousands trying to make their way back to Sydney from the state’s bushfire-ravaged south coast. Both sides donned black armbands in recognition of the spate of fires storming through south-eastern Australia.
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