Australia condemned to final day fight
A troubled Australia will start the final day of the Third Test with just eight second innings wickets in tact and thus battling for survival after another six hours of New Zealand dominance at the WACA Ground in Perth today.
By stumps on the fourth day of a Test that continues to hold supporters of New Zealand cricket in its permanent thrall, the Black Caps had reduced the hosts to a scoreline of 2/69 as they confronted the daunting target of 440 to win.
That the Australians should have been forced into such a desperate corner in a fight to avert a series defeat owed a deal to some more fine batting from the tourists today on their path to a total of 9/256 before a late afternoon declaration. Batting that produced a rare double for a New Zealander, easily the country's most productive opening stand of the series, and yet more of the intelligent character and brow-beating of the bowlers that had featured on the first two days of the match.
In the midst of a union of 77 runs with Mark Richardson (30) that put the Kiwis' previous opening partnerships in the series in the shade, it was enterprising youngster Lou Vincent (54) who again set the tone.
He survived a run out chance when Ricky Ponting aimed at his stumps from cover point, but was otherwise content to keep fanning the flames of an early love affair with Test match cricket. Classical strokes flourished throughout an 88-minute stay and he was regularly able to pierce an Australian field that tended to revolve around understandably defensive settings.
Exquisite timing and placement ensured that the scoreboard whistled along at a run-a-ball rate while he was in occupation; only when he chased a short Brett Lee (4/56) delivery outside the line of off stump to carve a catch to Mark Waugh in the gully did the fun end.
He duly became just the second New Zealander in history to consummate a century with a half-century on Test debut, joining another opening batsman - Rodney Redmond - in that elite bracket.
Progress slowed dramatically upon his departure.
Mathew Sinclair (29) struggled for a long period, adding just one run in 46 minutes at one stage as he attempted to draw on all of his reserves of concentration in resisting Shane Warne (1/75) and Glenn McGrath (1/63). His frustration was such that it even transformed itself into desperation when an urgent call for a run from a ball hit straight to Steve Waugh at point resulted in the needless run out of Richardson. Sinclair ultimately outside edged at McGrath and captain Stephen Fleming (4) came and went quickly, bowled through the gate as he advanced and drove errantly at Warne.
Yet there still remained little to disturb the general pattern of New Zealand command.
The belligerent Chris Cairns (42) received a promotion in the order and proceeded to play some typically thrilling strokes, duly undermining the Australians' best-laid plans of continuing to restrain the visitors' progress toward their huge lead. His case of knowing exactly how to attack a team was persuasively argued once again as he struck two sixes off McGrath with cleanly-clubbed blows over long on and mid wicket respectively and surrounded them with a mixture of authoritative shots.
Sound assistance was rendered by first innings heroes Nathan Astle (40) and Adam Parore (16*), and by Craig McMillan (19) too. It all ensured that the lead had not only swelled well beyond the mark of the most successful fourth innings run chase in Test history but also that there were as many as 17 overs left to bowl before stumps by the time that Fleming called his batsmen in.
That meant that the artful and engaging cricket that the Black Caps have played from the outset of this match was able to receive even further expression as Australia's second innings began.
Justin Langer (0) showed great form to be the wretchedly elusive commodity that it is as he survived an imploring lbw shout from Shane Bond (1/27), then perished from the next delivery anyway as he edged a low catch to Daniel Vettori at third slip. A further calamity awaited Australia as Ponting (26), after several magnificent strokes, inside edged a Cairns (1/11) off cutter back into his stumps.
Indirectly, Fleming's declaration produced a rather touching piece of irony too. After it had been New Zealand on the end of jibes for its inability to take ten wickets in any innings in a succession of games at the start of the tour, the early closure meant that it was instead Australia that finished the series without managing to claim all ten New Zealand wickets in a single innings.
Little wonder that frustration was etched across the Australians' faces in the field and at the bowling crease for most of the afternoon.
By the end, such anger even appeared to spill over into a torrent of verbal abuse from Lee at number ten batsman Bond after he had removed his leg bail with an inswinging yorker. Lee will be fortunate if he escapes a hearing before match referee Jackie Hendriks.
And, if Australia fails to play the get-out-of-gaol card tomorrow, then it can only be imagined that there will be even more pain to follow.