Vodafone Men's Ashes
Aussies eye 300 lead on 'big unknown' Hobart pitch
Pat Cummins admitted that it was a ‘big unknown’ whether the Blundstone Arena pitch, which saw 17 wickets fall on day two, would remain as difficult to bat on heading into day three
16 January 2022, 12:59 AM AEST
The late call-up Hobart received to host its maiden Ashes Test match, and the first five-day fixture in the picturesque city for more than five years, lent the final game of this summer's Vodafone Ashes Series a distinct tinge of romance.
But after the carnage of day two, in which more wickets (17) fell in any Test match Australia has staged since 1998, the state of the delicately poised affair has seen it hastily change genre into a brain-twisting mystery.
The reason for the added intrigue surrounding a fixture that would ordinarily be viewed as perfunctory – given the urn's fate is known, and the competing teams have proved vastly mis-matched – is two-fold.
Not only has Blundstone Arena been rarely employed as a Test venue since added to the Australia roster in 1989 (14 matches in 32 summers), it had never before seen a day-night Test until Stuart Broad charged in at David Warner last Friday afternoon.
Which means, when it comes to assessing whether Australia's current position of 152 runs ahead with seven second innings wickets in their pockets is powerful or perilous, skipper Pat Cummins has little or no meaningful form to guide him.
History would suggest anything shy of a 400-run overall advantage might be a bit skinny with three days left in the game and fine weather (by Tasmania standards) forecast throughout.
After all, it was Hobart where Australia set a new record for highest successful fourth innings run chases on home turf when current men's team coach Justin Langer and rookie keeper Adam Gilchrist helped their team reel in a final-day target of 369 against Pakistan in 1999.
That might be passed off as a statistical aberration if not for the corroborating evidence of eight successful fourth innings pursuits of totals above 300 in Marsh Sheffield Shield matches at the ground in the past 18 domestic seasons.
And it's barely three years since Queensland cantered to victory chasing 414 for the loss of just six wickets having been knocked over for 107 in their first innings on a pitch so bowler-friendly 18 wickets fell on the opening day.
In light of those precedents, Cummins might be understandably nervous knowing three of his top-order batters are back in the sheds with a lead significantly short of 200.
However, applying the relevant filter of 'day-night matches' to that back catalogue of Bellerive games shrinks the sample size to just three, of which Tasmania's 2-200 to beat Victoria in 2014-15 is the only win by a team batting fourth.
The more relevant example might be the most recent pink ball Shield game staged in Hobart in 2016, when Victoria – anchored by an unbeaten 79 in more than four hours from Dan Christian – held on for a draw against Tasmania finishing 8-319 from 108 overs on the last day.
It's reasonable to argue that Tasmania's attack that day (Jackson Bird, Sam Rainbird, Simon Milenko, Cameron Stevenson and Beau Webster) did not boast quite the same scare factor as Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Scott Boland, Cameron Green and Nathan Lyon.
But Cummins is aware the Blundstone pitch has a reputation for flattening out and offering easier batting as games drag on, even allowing for the more-generous-than-usual covering of 8mm of sprightly rye grass on the current Test pitch.
"It's one of the unknowns," he said at the close of day two when asked if he expected batting to remain as tough as it has so far proved with 23 wickets tumbling for 528 runs in this Test.
"I think another reason why both teams wanted to bowl first (at the coin toss) is that traditionally it gets flatter and flatter.
"There's probably a little bit more grass on it, and even playing under lights at night it gets a bit more dew so it felt like it livened up a little bit.
"But it's one of the big unknowns, not having a lot of history here with pink ball cricket.
"Today it probably quickened up a little bit compared to yesterday.
"Hopefully it's similar tomorrow."
The other factor that will occupy the Australia skipper's thinking on day three is the x-factor of how the ball behaves under floodlights.
Should his team be able to mount the sort of fightback they managed on day one when Travis Head's audacious century lifted them from danger at 3-12 to a competitive 303, he might even consider a declaration late on day three to allow his bowlers a crack at England with a new ball under lights.
Then again, if they're still batting come the start of Sunday's night session then it's a clear indication the ball is no longer dominating as it's done across the first two days, and he might look to push even deeper into day four should that option be available.
One certainty is the formula he applied to the timing of a declaration in the previous Test at the SCG will be redundant.
That calculation was based on the prevailing scoring rate throughout the Test's first three innings extrapolated across the available overs remaining in the final day and a bit to ensure he did not set England too gettable a target while still dangling them a "carrot" to encourage strokeplay.
If that rationale was applied to this match where teams have rattled along at more than 3.7 runs per over thus far, he'd be eyeing an overall lead above 700 to be sure his rivals can't chase it down using the almost 200 overs that would be pending across the Test's final two days.
Allowing for all that convoluted math, and the sketchy lessons of an abbreviated history, Cummins believes an advantage of around 300 would help ease his angst in the unspoken knowledge England has not breached that benchmark in nine previous attempts throughout this campaign.
"There's plenty of time left in the match, so as many as we can would be nice," Cummins said in attempting to put a value on the lead he considered optimal.
"I'd love to get close to 300 at least.
"I've said a few times you can have pink ball sessions that you feel like you're going to get a wicket every ball.
"There's also other times when the ball can get soft, and you feel like you're a million miles away from getting a wicket.
"There's always just a few more unknowns.
"As many runs as we can get the better, and even timing the new ball.
"If we can have a hard ball under lights it's always a good thing."
Vodafone Men's Ashes
Australia: Pat Cummins (c), Steve Smith (vc), Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Josh Inglis, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitch Marsh, Michael Neser, Jhye Richardson, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner
England: Joe Root (c), James Anderson, Jonathan Bairstow, Dom Bess, Sam Billings, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Zak Crawley, Haseeb Hameed, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood
First Test: Australia won by nine wickets
Second Test: Australia won by 275 runs
Third Test: Australia won by an innings and 14 runs
Fourth Test: Match drawn
Fifth Test: January 14-18, Blundstone Arena