Australia cash in on New Zealand's misses and misfortunes
Bad luck. It's one of those flip phrases you hear at times of failure. Often luck has actually had nothing to do with it. But this Trans-Tasmanian summer it has been much more literally true of New Zealand. You couldn't even say luck has deserted them, for that indicates they once had it. That hasn't been the case since they landed in Australia in October. This summer they have been Black Cats more than Black Caps.
In the four Tests so far, Australia lead 3-0. It could easily have been 2-1 to New Zealand. In Adelaide, third umpire Nigel Llong bafflingly declared that a Hot Spot on Nathan Lyon's bat "could have come from anywhere" while he was reviewing a DRS appeal for caught. Australia would have been 9 for 118 had Lyon rightly been given out; they went on to make 224 in their first innings and won a tight Test match by three wickets.
At the Basin Reserve, umpire Richard Illingworth was the cause of New Zealand's pain when he called a no-ball off bowler Doug Bracewell in the last over of day one. Adam Voges was bowled with that delivery but the no-ball gave him a reprieve; replays showed a large chunk of Bracewell's heel was behind the crease, and ICC regulations mean the no-ball could not be un-called. Voges was on 7; he went on to make 239.
New Zealand must have been upset by these errors but to their credit they have done very little crying over spilled milk. They had every reason to, given they weren't the ones who spilled it. Of course, it is impossible to predict how the matches would have played out had Llong and Illingworth not erred, but what is certain is that it made New Zealand's task much more difficult.
Then there is the fact that Brendon McCullum is a hopeless tosser. Those words might be grounds for deportation from New Zealand this week, but they are true. Logic tells you that each flip of the coin is unaffected by the last, but you would also assume that over time your results will even out. Not this summer: McCullum has lost nine of 12 tosses this season across all formats.
The last of these lost tosses was in Wellington, where Steven Smith called correctly and sent New Zealand in on a pitch so green that some observers joked it had branches. The toss and the no-ball were the bookends to a disappointing first day for New Zealand, but bookends are irrelevant without something between them. New Zealand didn't always control the controllables.
For the 535 deliveries on day one that were not no-balls that bowled Voges, Australia and New Zealand made their own luck. There may have been branches on the pitch but it took a while for the leaves to sprout. New Zealand's batsmen pushed hard and often at deliveries that could have been left alone and edges ensued; like a team of hypochondriacs, Australia caught everything.
The same could not be said of New Zealand. At second slip, Mark Craig put down a pretty straightforward chance off the edge of Smith, who was on 18 at the time. Take the catch and Australia are 43 for 3; instead, Smith went on to make 71 and the third wicket did not fall until the total was 131. After the match Smith said he had felt scratchy until given that life; seeing the ball spill through Craig's hands reset his focus.
Such are the moments on which Test matches can turn. Sometimes it's an umpire who spills the milk, sometimes it's a player. The end result is that a New Zealand side that flew to Australia in October with high hopes has failed to regain the Trans-Tasman Trophy against an Australian outfit decimated by retirements. McCullum will depart without ever winning a Test series against Australia, no matter what happens in Christchurch.
It's a shame because McCullum's squad, stable compared to Smith's developing side, seemed well-placed to challenge Australia. In 2014, both teams had toured the UAE to play Tests against Pakistan: Australia were crushed, but New Zealand escaped with a drawn series. In 2015, both teams toured England for Test cricket: again, Australia were soundly beaten and again New Zealand managed a drawn series.
Hopes were high for New Zealand this summer, even among ex-players. Familiar faces were present at the Basin Reserve this week: Jeremy Coney, Martin Snedden, Richard Hadlee, Ewen Chatfield (sans 'tache and sans cab), even Vaughan Brown, the man who took the other wicket when Hadlee claimed nine at the Gabba in 1985-86. It was the first proper reunion of the first New Zealand team to win the Trans-Tasman Trophy.
And it lasted only four days instead of five, McCullum's men unable to take this match the distance, and unable to replicate the achievement of Coney's squad from three decades ago. At best they can now draw the series in Christchurch. To do that, they will need a change of fortune, from external forces as well as internal. Better luck next time, New Zealand. Literally.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale