Southee swings New Zealand into strong position
If Australia were expecting an easy follow-up to their tough tour of India, their hopes were dashed by Tim Southee within 40 minutes at the Gabba. A super spell of swing bowling from Southee reduced Australia to 3 for 23 and, despite Michael Clarke's fighting 98, the green-tinged pitch and the discipline of New Zealand's seamers made scoring hard and ensured the visitors finished the day happy.
Losing to India in India brought enough questions about Australia's declining dominance, despite the difficulty of the task. The side was expected to regain its form against New Zealand, the No. 7-ranked team, ahead of home-and-away contests against the more likely challengers South Africa. Instead, Australia's batsmen spent the first day of their home Test summer battling to 214 against a relatively unheralded attack.
The 19-year-old Southee was the key with his impressive swing and clever variations. He was well supported by Iain O'Brien, who nipped the ball off the seam, and Chris Martin, who nagged on a testing line, while even the slow-mediums of Grant Elliott and Jesse Ryder were dangerous. Australia's fast men could be equally successful on the second day but it wasn't quite what the fans expected at the "Gabbatoir", where Australia have not lost a Test since 1988.
The saving grace for Australia was the effort of Clarke, who was noticeably thinner having just overcome a virus he picked up in India, but was strong enough to hold together Australia's innings while wickets tumbled around him. He added 54 with the last two batsmen, Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Clark, and the resistance was enough to steal a fraction of the momentum from New Zealand.
Clarke had his share of luck - edges flew wide of the slips, uppishly played shots fell short of fielders - but his concentration was strong. He occupied the crease for most of the day after the top three fell in the first eight overs and finally departed from his 217th ball when he drove at a straight one from Ryder and was bowled.
It was typical of the dismissals throughout the day in that the bowlers forced Australia's batsmen to play the majority of the time. New Zealand had sent Australia in on a surface that was always likely to help the seamers and rarely did the bowlers stray from their probing lines.
Australia's batsmen struggled to adjust to a more lively pitch having only ten days ago been playing the fourth Test in India, where the benign surfaces made fast bowling a largely thankless task. Besides Clarke, the only men who looked vaguely comfortable were Michael Hussey and Andrew Symonds.
Symonds has had an eventful few months on the field and his return to the top level on the field was just as action-packed. He combined for a 36-run stand with Clarke, the man who played a major role in axing him from the squad in Darwin, and his 26 featured three consecutive fours off Elliott including a muscular pull over midwicket.
The most incredible entry in his scorebook was eight off one O'Brien ball when Symonds clubbed one over midwicket and ran four as the ball held up in the damp outfield. Four overthrows were added when the ball was returned to Brendon McCullum, who felt there was a chance of running Symonds out and hurled it wide of the stumps. O'Brien had the last laugh when he jagged one away in the same over and had Symonds caught behind; it truly was a strange over as Symonds had already been dropped by Aaron Redmond.
Symonds had come to the crease midway through the second session when Hussey's precision judgment deserted him and he was lbw leaving a Martin inswinger. The most experienced fast man in the attack, Martin was the least threatening of the three main seamers but he kept the runs tight and ending Hussey's patient 35 was important as Hussey and Clarke had added 73 that began Australia's recovery following Southee's pre-lunch strikes.
Southee's new-ball spell was notable not only for his swing but also his admirable thinking. He had been regularly bringing the ball back in to the left-hand openers Matthew Hayden and Simon Katich but he picked them both up with offcutters that took the edge and flew behind the wicket.
It became three strikes in 15 minutes when Southee removed Ricky Ponting for 4. Ponting must have initially been thrilled to face a new ball not held by his recent tormentor Ishant Sharma but he found Southee no easier. He was caught at second slip off a leading edge when he tried to work through leg off a ball that bounced handsomely and moved away late.
Southee's success justified not only Vettori's decision to field - a call that has landed other visiting captains in trouble in Australia in recent years - but also New Zealand's inclusion of Southee ahead of Kyle Mills. For a while it seemed Southee would not have enough support as Clarke, Hussey and Symonds showed some resistance. But once Hussey and Symonds had departed Australia's lower order struggled, despite batting deep with Shane Watson at No. 7 and Brad Haddin at No. 8.
Watson wafted airily and edged behind off O'Brien, whose constricting line and length caused problems all day. Haddin's aggressive drive in the first over from Ryder, who finished with 2 for 7, was not what Australia required just before tea, and when Southee returned to add Brett Lee as his fourth wicket it was clear that it was New Zealand's day.
To add to the home side's frustration, their bowlers could not break through in five overs in gloomy conditions late in the afternoon. It completed a terrific three sessions for New Zealand, who lost their warm-up game to New South Wales and have not won a Test in Australia since 1985. They might not win this one either, but they have at least taken a major step in the right direction.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo