Hopes are again high but history says New Zealand will choke in Australia

The Guardian Sports 5 days ago

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A spirited group of New Zealanders have strung together some impressive Test results. They are punching above their weight on the ICC world rankings, and similarly global admiration for their leader. They have a reputation for decency and decorum while playing a tough and skilful game. They are perfectly placed to come to Australia and win for the first time since Richard Hadlee was running amok and The Cure started becoming a mainstream hit.

The sentiments above have been broadly expressed over the past couple of weeks. They could equally have been copy-pasted back four years to the November of 2015, the last time that New Zealand reached the final stages of preparation for an Australian tour.

That team was supposed to give Australia a red-hot run during a dislocated rebuilding phase after five major retirements. Instead, a home team full of new faces used the heavy roller to embed New Zealand into the Gabba pitch. Australia made 389 on the first day, and across two innings lost eight wickets and scored four tons. The visitors lost twenty and scored one.

The reality is that New Zealand teams visiting Australia get stage fright. It has happened enough that it can’t be written off as coincidence. It happened in the World Cup final of 2015, when the irresistible charge of New Zealand’s home campaign got diverted into a ditch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

At the far end of that year, that loss would have given the touring Test team plenty of motivation. Recent Test results gave legitimacy. New Zealand had recently thumped Sri Lanka and India at home, toured to win in the Caribbean, and drawn tough away series against Pakistan and England, the latter two markedly better than Australia’s contemporaneous results against the same teams.

Brendon McCullum was still the leader, retaining his highly upbeat style and the confidence of his team. Kane Williamson, batting at first drop, was at the peak of his powers, and Ross Taylor was about to regain his thanks to a successful eye operation. Trent Boult and Tim Southee had been devastating with swing during the World Cup. And yet … it didn’t work. New Zealand fought back, drawing in Perth on a road, then got unlucky with umpiring to lose the first day-night Test, but the first thumping in Brisbane had set them too far behind.

Australia celebrate their Trans-Tasman series victory over New Zealand at Adelaide Oval in 2015. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

So the New Zealand of 2019 will want to beware being talked up. On balance they have a better team now, across its breadth. Opening batsman Tom Latham has blossomed in the intervening years, and Henry Nicholls has appeared in the middle order. Neil Wagner is the engine room of the bowling attack, having not played in 2015 but boasting 129 wickets in 28 Tests since. Colin de Grandhomme is nailing the job as the seaming all-rounder; Mitchell Santner hasn’t fully done so as the spin equivalent but has the ability.

Williamson is Williamson: a little more worn and a little less pure, with a higher ratio of runs collected rather than sparkled through the off side, but doubtless one of the best in the world. Taylor remains among the runs even as his years tick upwards, too. BJ Watling has been a quality keeper-batsman for years, but hit another level in the last few weeks against England. Boult remains an operator of the highest quality, while Southee these days is more a chipping-in kind of bowler but still does his job.

So the optimism will be there, and there’s already anticipation of a contest from the Australia side. Skills aside, there was a ruthlessness to New Zealand in the past few weeks: making England toil fruitlessly with the ball for 205 overs in the second match after 201 overs in a single innings in the first. Nothing gets Australia supporters on board faster than seeing England suffer.

But skill can only work for teams that hold their nerve, and that is the true challenge for New Zealand. In 2019 they have the luck of avoiding the Gabba, rich with the implacably bland threat of its pitch. Pakistan have already provided the blood-sweat-tears sacrifice to Brisbane’s humid gods. For New Zealand it will all come down to something new: a little-played variant of the game at a little-used ground, a day-night match at the new Perth stadium, in a city whose Tests have hitherto only been held under the baking Westralian sun.

Perhaps that will help a little, with unknowns for both teams. Perhaps that will distract the visitors from nerves about the game itself. But on past experience, the likelihood of a New Zealand choke is high. The occasion has previously been too much, and the occasion won’t get any less imposing with the second match starting on Boxing Day. No matter how well New Zealand have been playing, their hardest job now is to avoid the fate of their previous visit to the MCG, a joyful clamour subsiding into a mumble.


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