Cricket: Only Vettori seen as a threat

Bangladesh have been the entree before the main. Alex Malcolm gives an Australian perspective of their upcoming tour here.

Ricky Ponting and his side are relieved not to be facing Shane Bond on their upcoming tour. Photo / Getty Images
Ricky Ponting and his side are relieved not to be facing Shane Bond on their upcoming tour. Photo / Getty Images

Ask any Australian cricket fan which team their side beat in the 2009 Champions Trophy final, and it's likely you'll receive a blank look.

Even if they're clever enough to decipher the difference between the biennial ICC's knock out one-day tournament and the first ever Champions League for the world's best domestic Twenty20 sides, few would answer correctly.

New Zealand was outgunned by a rampant Australian unit at Centurion in a final that was somewhat anti-climactic given the absence, through injury, of Black Caps captain and talisman Daniel Vettori.

But while the Australian public are largely ignorant of recent battles, and are wrestling with their own interest levels in the current one-sided summer against a hapless Pakistan and helpless West Indies, the Australian cricket team would be far less naive when it comes to the upcoming tour of New Zealand.

The Black Caps always lift a cog for their trans-Tasman rivals, particularly in the limited overs format. Aside from the recent Champions Trophy final, the last three Chappell-Hadlee one-day series have been extremely competitive.

Many might have forgotten but had the Brisbane heavens not opened 12 months ago in the deciding game, with Martin Guptill and Brendan Diamanti needing just 33 from 36 balls, New Zealand may well have won the series.

It would've meant they had won two of the last three Chappell-Hadlees.

The only problem for the Black Caps is they appear to have run out of kryptonite. Australia have struggled at times with the bat against the Kiwis because they have had bowlers who can move the ball through the air.

Shane Bond was the chief tormenter. His 35 wickets at 14.45 in 12 ODI appearances against Australia, including three five wicket hauls, are stunning figures. His presence has always had the Australians wary, his absence confirms Australian confidence.

Add in the absence of both Kyle Mills (shoulder) and Iain O'Brien (retirement) and that confidence only increases.

It leaves Vettori, a man Australia regard as world-class, with a group of foot-soldiers Australia have terrorised in the past.

The only unknown quantity is Andy McKay. He has been compared to Bond and will need to bowl like him to create inroads into a very settled Australian batting line-up.

The Australian one-day side is playing with unparalleled confidence. The bowling unit that restricted New Zealand to 200 for 9 at Centurion in October is not the same. It is arguably better.

New Zealanders would look with jealous eyes at Australia's endless depth. Brett Lee and Peter Siddle are injured, and Australia's number one-ranked ODI bowler Nathan Bracken is making few ripples in domestic cricket.

Meanwhile, replacements Doug Bollinger, Ryan Harris and Clint McKay have combined for 42 ODI wickets this summer at a cost of 11.55 apiece. The trio have played together just once in seven matches as Australia insist on rest and rotation.

The test series will hold less interest for Australians. Their focus is firmly fixed on the Ashes urn. The New Zealand tour will be seen as a chance to experiment given the hosts haven't beaten Australia in a test match since March 1993, and especially since it is only a two-test series.

This phenomenon is a worrying trend for the traditional form of the game. India's host cricket broadcaster billed India's current South African tour as test cricket's world title bout. But Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier never fought over two rounds.

A three-test series with New Zealand might have made interesting viewing, given it will be the most inexperienced Australian test side to have hopped the Tasman in 20 years.

Despite winning five of six tests this summer, results have papered over cracks. Their batting has been heavily reliant on Shane Watson and Simon Katich at the top.

The Black Caps, without Messers Bond, Mills and O'Brien, will have their hands full with the makeshift opening pair who combined for three 100-plus stands this summer.

An inability to make early inroads will leave Vettori bowling at set players. The Australians hold the New Zealand captain in very high regard.

They will be vigilant, playing him without risk, while attacking the weak links at the other end. Vettori can create headaches if he can find some support.

Middle order collapses cost Australia the Ashes, and created heart palpitations in Adelaide, Perth and Sydney this summer against both the West Indies and Pakistan.

Marcus North will visit the Shaky Isles on very shaky ground. Whoever flies as the back-up batsman should be prepared to play.

It could be one of a few players. Cameron White and Shaun Marsh have made cases through their one-day form but neither would raise Black Cap hopes.

Michael Klinger, a Victorian-bred South Australian accumulator, is far and away the stand-out run scorer in the Sheffield Shield but will probably have to pay his own fare to get to New Zealand.

New South Wales prodigies, the left-handed trainee pilot Usman Khawaja, and leg-spinning all-rounder Steve Smith, will both be considered as development options.

Again, the bowling looks strong despite no Lee, Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus or Stuart Clark.

Harris is being rested from the current one-day series with the Windies, which is an indication he may win a test berth alongside incumbents Mitchell Johnson and Doug Bollinger.

New Zealand's batting looks vulnerable and heavily reliant on Ross Taylor. It has not gone unnoticed that no New Zealander has made a test century against Australia since Hamish Marshall's 146 in the first test of the 2005 tour in Christchurch.

The most interesting aspect of the tour may well be the two Twenty20s. It is the last chance for both sides to experiment before May's World Championship.

Australia have yet to master the newest format. Despite the dominance of their domestic sides at the Champions League and the quality of the Big Bash tournament, the international squad lacks experience.

Michael Clarke is an imaginative captain but flawed batsman, while the best Australian Twenty20 players, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Brad Hodge and Lee Carseldine, are funding their superannuation in the IPL and none will be considered for the World Championship.

With Brendan McCullum, Taylor, Jacob Oram and Vettori, New Zealand could well claim favouritism for the two-game series.

This tour, it seems, is a microcosm of world cricket. The two Twenty20 matches will create the most interest and claim the highest attendances.

The five match one-day series will appease the host broadcasters with five days of guaranteed ratings. The two tests are an afterthought, thankfully played at traditional grounds, but ultimately silently scheduled against the start of the rugby and football seasons.

Australian tours to their closest neighbours have rarely grabbed the headlines. Hopefully two close test matches may at least cause a stir.

Australian Tour:

* February 26: First Twenty20, Hamilton.
* February 28: Second Twenty20, Christchurch.
* March 3: First One-Day International, Napier.
* March 6: Second One-Day International, Auckland.
* March 9: Third One-Day International, Hamilton.
* March 11: Fourth One-Day International, Auckland.
* March 13: Fifth One-Day International, Wellington.
* March 19-23: First test, Wellington.
* March 27-31: Second test, Hamilton.

* Alex Malcolm is a cricket writer based in Perth.

- Herald on Sunday

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