Australia back on top of the world

24 February 2016

Australia seal a 2-0 series win on day five and reclaim No.1 Test ranking

New Zealand v Australia Tests, Second Test


The short-term pay-off from Australia’s hard-fought seven-wicket win over New Zealand in Christchurch today is that they assume the title of world’s best Test team, for a period that will be decided by their own performances from here on.

But the bigger picture upon which captain Steve Smith and coach Darren Lehmann gazed with due satisfaction, as the Trans-Tasman Trophy was presented and Brendon McCullum farewelled in the Canterbury sun, is that they face a future bathed similarly bright.

Smith has now led Australia to nine Test wins from his first 11 matches at the helm, a record equalled only by Ricky Ponting and Lindsay Hassett among his Baggy Green Cap wearing predecessors.

But neither of those leaders – indeed only six other skippers in the history of the Test game – have pushed 11 matches into their captaincy tenure having not experienced defeat.

And with just one of the current XI (Adam Voges, career Test average 95.50) and ‘keeper Peter Nevill the only players aged 30 or above, as well as the calibre of Mitchell Star and Pat Cummins already travelling the road back from injury his team has scope for improvement.

WATCH: Smith at his inventive best

Which will be gauged when they front up for four pivotal Test series over the coming year, against Sri Lanka (away), then the three teams below them on the new Test rankings Pakistan and South Africa (home) and – the greatest challenge among all save for Ashes redemption – India in India.

Where Australian cricket reached its most recent low point in 2013.

Quick single: Bird flying, Aussies on song

Today’s win, against a dogged but rarely daunting opponent, ranks among the more meritorious of Smith’s captaincy if only because it came on foreign soil and in circumstances where they had to fight their way back into the match after McCullum’s day one counter-punching.

In the end, which came 15 minutes after lunch on the final day with 55 overs remaining in the day when Voges square drove Trent Boult to the point boundary, looked more straightforward in the score book than it had been on the benign Hagley pitch for four  and a bit days.

The final phase saw just two wickets fall today, Usman Khawaja caught by men of the moment if not the match McCullum for 45, and the game’s dominant batter Joe Burns for 65 to follow on from his first innings career high of 170.

And the day five run chase was achieved with clear minds and cool heads.

There was a time, not so far gone, that small targets in the final innings of Test matches were viewed as the Australian team’s kryptionite.

From the time they stumbled in pursuit of 117 to lose a memorable Test to South Africa by five runs at the SCG in 1994, the Australians have battled suggestions they can freeze in the glare of the final-day spotlight.

To ensure that is another of the skeletons laid to rest by the group that Smith is leading on an ever upward curve, there was only a brief flurry when the Australia batters lifted their heads and looked to finish the match early.

That came when the match officials deemed that the usually intractable lunch break would be delayed for 15 minutes, with Australia 32 runs shy of victory and seemingly egging them to get a wriggle on in the four overs of time added on.

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Which prompted opener and man of the match Joe Burns to launch an uncharacteristic slog that cost him his middle stump, and convinced Smith and Adam Voges they would politely decline the pointless offer and make it safely through to the break instead.

By which time the equation was 16 runs with seven wickets up their sleeve, and barely a cloud in the sky.

The attack plan employed by Neil Wagner when the final morning began, beneath bright sun and before a scattering of several thousand people taking advantage of free admission and better weather, was a thumbnail sketch of the Black Caps entire five-match campaign against Australia.

That began in Brisbane last November and ended in a one-sided scoreline of 4-0 in favour of the new number ones.

It was delivered with earnest intent and unflinching belief, but ultimately delivered nothing but a few moments of dashed hope and a lot of fruitless toil.

Revisiting the career-best figures he collected in Australia’s first innings, when all six of his wickets came from short=pitched deliveries, Wagner banged ball after ball into his half of the Hagley pitch with a field set to snaffle any errant leg side strokes the Australians might unleash.

Given Wagner’s stature at below six foot and a top bowling speed of sub-140km/h, it was a game plan perhaps most generously described as Bodyline light.

WATCH: Across the Ditch: A tough day at the office

In the absence of any conventional swing through the warm, late summer air and the vagaries of the reverse version still eluding the Black Caps despite Wagner’s incessant efforts to thump it into the pitch.

Which you can get away with as a bowler, but not as a fielder.

There were a couple of moments when Wagner, bowling with a fracture at the base of his left ring finger and spit webbing on the same hand having taken several tumbles in his follow-through yesterday, almost achieved the breakthrough that NZ needed early to slow Australia’s progress.

Burns copped a blow to the head as he tried to duck under a bouncer that got up barely beyond stump height, with the ball glancing off the helmet to post four leg byes.

In Wagner’s next over, he squared up the opener who dropped his gloves from the line of fire and the ball thumped into his right shoulder before pitching safely in front of McCullum lurching forward at slip.

The genuine opportunities were created, not surprisingly, by bowlers pitching it up and getting batsmen to push forward hesitantly rather than hoping they’ll lean back and mis-hit defiantly.

Like the ninth ball of the morning when Trent Boult found the edge of Khawaja’s angled bat and the edge flew at optimum catching height to the left of ‘keeper B J Watling, to the right of first slip McCullum and to the hand of neither.

If the Black Caps were to put the tourists under pressure in their perfunctory run chase, that was the moment that needed to be seized.

But that’s what separates the world’s best teams from those, such as NZ who remain sixth among the 10 Test playing nations with Sri Lanka, the West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe below them.

WATCH: Australia close in on day four

In truth, despite the build-up to the first stage of the back-to-back Trans Tasman Series during which there was a genuine belief the Black Caps might push their bigger, brasher neighbours for a Test or two, maybe even a series.

But apart from the pink ball Test on a grassy Adelaide Oval pitch that brought the seam bowlers to the forefront and the teams ever closer together, and the runs fest on a Perth pitch that hollered ‘draw’ from the first session of the opening day, the gulf between the sides has stayed wide.

The margins in Australia’s favour were 208 runs in Brisbane, three wickets in Adelaide, an innings and 52 runs in Wellington and today’s seven-wicket win in Christchurch.

Upon assuming the captaincy last year, Smith identified attainment of the number one ranking in all formats and improving the Test team’s performances away from home as his KPIs.

Which means he and his players have earned the $US1 million ($A1.39m) bonus they pocket from today’s win.

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