Relaxed Australia eye No. 1 ranking
One of the more revealing Australian cricket interviews of the past week occurred on Melbourne radio rather than in New Zealand, and featured not a member of the Test squad but a limited-overs specialist. It was John Hastings, one-time Test cricketer and some-time ODI and T20 player whose early career was played under Michael Clarke, and who is now enjoying a renaissance under Steven Smith.
At 30, Hastings has plenty of experience at all levels and is regarded as a clever thinker about the game, particularly his detailed plans for opposing batsmen. So it was fascinating to hear his response when asked about the culture in the side under Smith, and the relaxed atmosphere that Smith and coach Darren Lehmann had fostered over the past six months. Hastings, recently returned from the Chappell-Hadlee Series, was effusive in his praise.
"Not to take anything away from the boys when I played back whenever it was… It's just different," Hastings said on RSN radio. "I don't know whether it's because I was younger, I was a bit more afraid to speak up and speak my mind. Darren Lehmann and Steve Smith have created an environment where everyone is equal, honesty is the key and communication is the key.
"When you have those key factors in your side, it just breeds a really good culture and environment. For me it's brilliant. I can just go in and be yourself, no question is too dumb. If you think you've seen something on the field you bring it up, people don't shoot you down. It's just a really good environment."
Hastings also noted that the age of Smith's players helped the gelling process, for many had come up through age-group cricket together or knew each other from the Centre of Excellence. It should also be noted that Hastings was not critical of past captains, but rather he observed that the culture was different when "big personalities" such as Clarke, Ricky Ponting, Brett Lee and Michael Hussey were present.
Nobody could argue Smith's team is completely devoid of "big personalities" - David Warner's name comes immediately to mind. But there is also plenty of understated excellence: think Adam Voges, Nathan Lyon, Peter Nevill, Josh Hazlewood, among others. Whatever the cause, in the six months since Clarke led a series of post-Ashes retirements, Australia have not lost a Test match.
"We're very relaxed and trying to improve every day," Smith said. "I think that's really important for this group, to try and make sure we're trying to get better each day and able to adapt to everywhere we go around the world. I think the environment is a good place to be at the moment, where we're gelling well as a group and everyone is playing for the right reasons."
Remarkably, Smith is yet to taste defeat as a Test captain, having won six and drawn four matches as captain since he first stood in for Clarke in a temporary capacity in the 2014-15 home summer against India. They may not yet have been tested to their maximum - West Indies were weak opponents and New Zealand have underwhelmed - but they have done enough to be within striking distance of the No.1 Test ranking.
All they have to do is avoid defeat over the next five days in Christchurch. Any sort of series win in New Zealand would be enough for Australia to take the top spot from India, which would be a remarkable achievement given they have lost Clarke, Mitchell Johnson, Chris Rogers, Brad Haddin, Shane Watson and Ryan Harris to retirement in the past year.
"We want to be No.1 in the world in every format of the game and if we win this week we'll be No.1 in two of those formats," Smith said. "For us we do want to win away from home as well. That's massive on my agenda and the guys' agenda and I thought we played really well in the first Test match to adapt to the conditions and I think it's going to be important for us going forward to make sure we're doing that a lot.
"For me it's satisfying [if we] get that ranking. I think that would be really good for us as a group. But when you're number one, you want to stretch that distance between the teams. For us that's making sure we play well away from home."
The first step on that road is to win in Christchurch, where James Pattinson has been confirmed as the replacement for Peter Siddle, who has back pain. Siddle's absence, though, does raise the question of which bowler will do the hard work into the wind - a significant wind, if the past couple of days in Christchurch are any indication - as Pattinson and Hazlewood would both prefer to work down-breeze, and Jackson Bird struggled in the first innings in Wellington.
"I think that's understandable ... given it was his first game back for a while and I think he was a little bit nervous," Smith said of Bird. "I think he did get a little bit better as the game went on, I'm sure he'll come out tomorrow with all guns blazing and I'm sure if gets the ball in the right areas he'll get a lot of assistance from that wicket.
"I think Josh can bowl the same way he's been bowling, he's been really impressive for quite a while now. He's a class bowler and if he continues to bowl the way he is at the moment he's going to take a lot of wickets."
Smith described the Hagley Oval pitch as "quite green and wet" and similar to the Basin Reserve surface, but he was wary of taking too much note of the pitch until the morning of the Test. Smith had success by winning the toss and sending New Zealand in at the Basin Reserve, but there is no guarantee he will go for the same option if given the opportunity in Christchurch.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale