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March 9, 2005
Two series are currently showing the best and worst of international cricket. While Pakistan and India share a competitive contest that improves international relations, South Africa is crushing and cursing Zimbabwe. New Zealand's hosting of Australia falls on the downside: it won't be a farce, but please hurry up and finish it.
There are a couple of hurdles that make this three-Test affair a stop-off rather than the destination. For Australia the Ashes are smouldering and July's events were more of a discussion point in the departure lounge before this tour began. New Zealand are also looking ahead to Sri Lanka's return and two matches they could win. The same prognosis is unlikely even in their Christchurch dressing-room when the opening Test begins on Thursday.
The Kiwis were supposed to resist Australia in the top-of-the-world one-day series before being grounded 5-0. Sri Lanka's tour, postponed because of the tsunami, was meant to build confidence before Australia arrived. Instead it will probably be needed to restore it once they leave.
Another problem affecting the billing is the familiarity of the teams. The neighbours have spent most of the season in each other's backyard, and the relationship is gratingly predictable. They went on road trips to Tests at Brisbane and Adelaide in November, then faced three one-day invitations for the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy. The short games strengthened the relationship and forged great expectations for the reciprocal visit.
Now the closely-matched friends are struggling acquaintances who can't help but pick arguments. They have another three more weeks in close proximity. It is a compelling reason for Test schedules to avoid home-and-away series in the same season.
The Australians have copied Homer Simpson and enjoyed the hospitality too much, giving their opponents nothing in return. They gatecrashed the Twenty20 wearing comparatively lame costumes; they made New Zealand suffer through their first five-match clean sweep on their beautiful grounds; they have sent batsmen to ruin figures of any vaguely promising recruit; and delivered Brett Lee on Michael Papps and Brendon McCullum. And to add insult to those injuries, Lee has been deemed surplus to requirements for this Test - he'll need to do more than clatter batsmen on the helmet to usurp Mike Kasprowicz.
Stephen Fleming was so fed up with answering questions about Australia that he banned talk of them at his press-conference table. Instead he has made jokes about his desperate injury situation and the search for replacements. "Anyone wearing whites or coloured clothes is in the frame at the moment," Fleming said during the crisis.
The coach has tried mixing wacky humour with bizarre ploys that successfully rile the Australians. Like a father trying to stay fashionable in his children's eyes, John Bracewell attempts zany methods of protection from the bullies. He has succeeded in deflecting the attention from his players by becoming the main figure of mocking. The former gravedigger may be preparing his own. His plans have stayed the same - the results have become worse.
While the one-day series was a mismatch between Nos. 1 and 2, the Tests pit the world champions against a seventh-ranked team already well below top health. Seven serious contenders were unavailable for the first Test with injury and New Zealand's best hope is for Australia to think too much about Lord's and Edgbaston and not enough about Martin, Franklin, Marshall and Cumming.
Similar slips happened in 1999-2000, when their batting was in trouble in each Test on seaming pitches, but they recovered in the middle of an amazing 16-Test winning streak. Damien Martyn returned to the side after a lengthy absence on that trip and has grown into a treasured batsman. His role will again be important if Chris Martin or James Franklin manage to send a shudder through Hayden, Langer or Ponting.
The countries have played only 19 Tests in the Shaky Isles and New Zealand are well placed with five wins, the last coming four Tests ago in 1992-93 when Danny Morrison and Dipak Patel bowled them to victory and Martyn scored 1 and 74. The more relevant matches are the two in Australia four months ago, when New Zealand lost by an innings and 156 runs at the Gabba and 213 runs at Adelaide Oval. Four players - Mark Richardson (retired), Mathew Sinclair (poor form), Scott Styris and Jacob Oram (both injured) - are missing from the outfit that approached full strength, and Daniel Vettori and Nathan Astle are fighting uncomfortable injuries.
Australia's concerns ended when Matthew Hayden was passed fit from a shoulder problem, but fatigue could become a factor. Both teams have been running since September's Champions Trophy in England, although the Kiwis had a midsummer's break when the Sri Lankans returned home. It's a potentially small opening that should make no difference, but the undermanned, overwhelmed neighbour must irritate any scratch in the hope of sending their familiar rivals packing.
Peter English is Australasian editor of Cricinfo.