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February 18, 2005
Let the contest resume. In an era of Australian domination any chink or blink is gleefully greeted, and New Zealand carried the necessary tools in December. The world wants them toppled by any teams or means - but at the very least under the gazes of stress-free umpires - and privately many Down Under agree. Cheering steamrollers has become tiring. There is a bump of hope in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Australia have wandered lonely on top over two World Cups, but New Zealand have always rumbled them. A day of Brisbane showers drained a thrilling conclusion to the inaugural Chappell-Hadlee Trophy after the opening two matches were shared, and Australia were under as much pressure as they apparently give the on-field officials. The washout heightened expectations for the five-match series against the world's top-ranked teams starting at Wellington tomorrow.
The two countries share much besides enthusiasm for this rivalry, and both understood Stephen Fleming when he succinctly predicted a "ripper". When Australia's players haven't been talking about the Ashes they have discussed their prospects carefully. Ricky Ponting used "big" and "vital" in between mentions of England before jetting to Auckland. Perhaps looking ahead is easier than contemplating a tribe of Kiwis even though Australia haven't lost a one-day series across the ditch.
Before Australia ran over Pakistan - umpiring not-outs permitting - in the VB Series, Fleming's side was a chance of overtaking their Trans-Tasman neighbours for three matches against the Rest of the World in October. With the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy safely stored in neutral territory until the end of the year, this series has been stripped of its glitter. The glitz came and went in a couple of hours of Twenty20; the serious glares begin at Westpac Stadium in search of top-table glory.
New Zealand's recent home one-day record is as proud as the All Blacks' tight five. Their rise to No. 2 was as calculated as Fleming's rotation of his side's mid-over bowling and late-order hitting. Since Pakistan toured in 2000-01, New Zealand have lost only eight matches in their green fields and claimed six series in a row if the abbreviated one against Sri Lanka, disrupted after a match by the Boxing Day tsunami, is included. Australia must adjust quickly to the conditions and rectangular grounds or face a recovery more difficult than the middle-order collapses of 4 for 10 at Telstra Stadium and 5 for 21 at the SCG against them in December.
Both times Darren Lehmann was the saviour with half-centuries, but he did not stay afloat after the VB Series. Lehmann was not alone as the battling wobbled - only Michael Clarke (68.5) and Damien Martyn (60) averaged more than 30 in the tournament - while Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath heaved them to victory. Matthew Hayden, who was dropped for the finals, and Andrew Symonds have form to re-find quickly against the niggly Kyle Mills, Daryl Tuffey and Jeff Wilson.
Wilson, the former All Black, knows about opposing great Australia teams, having lined up against the Wallabies in 14 Tests between 1994 and 2001, winning eight and losing six. Four ODIs in 1992-93 sit on his round-ball resume, but the born-again Black Cap has done something seemingly impossible by overshadowing the opening round of the Super 12 rugby competition. Marketing and novelty may have been behind his selection for the FICA World XI matches, but any chance against Australia will be deserved, and his performances will be scrutinised to a similar degree as Twenty20.
The flexing of Chris Cairns has scared Australia for more than a decade and Fleming's improved batting at the head of the order also worries Ponting. For the rest of the world it gives hope for another thrilling contest, and one that leads to a cut-and-dry conclusion.
Peter English is Australasian editor of Cricinfo.