Boult, Southee fail to meet expectations
At the start of this summer, New Zealand had two bowlers inside the top ten in the Test rankings: Trent Boult and Tim Southee. Australia had one, Mitchell Johnson, and unbeknownst to them he was about to retire. But the inability of New Zealand's attack to take 20 wickets in any of the five Tests between the teams this season was a major factor in Australia's domination and retention, twice, of the Trans-Tasman Trophy.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was that in their home conditions in Wellington and Christchurch, New Zealand's attack, led by Southee and Boult, struggled to find anywhere near as much swing as Australia's fast men. The conditions played a part - Steven Smith won the toss and sent New Zealand in on green pitches in both matches - but Australia also proved capable of finding reverse swing later in the Tests.
The final wicket tally for the five Tests home and away makes for lopsided reading. Josh Hazlewood topped the wickets with 22 at 32.63, Nathan Lyon was second with 20 at 27.75, and Boult was third with 18 victims at the inflated average of 42.11. No other New Zealander took more than 10 wickets across the five Tests and only Neil Wagner and Mitchell Santner, who each played only one Test, averaged under 40.
Southee's tally was especially disappointing. He finished the summer with nine wickets against Australia at 62.77, and rarely looked seriously threatening. Although Southee took 13 wickets at 16.30 in the two home Tests against Sri Lanka that came between the two Trans-Tasman contests, outgoing captain Brendon McCullum said after the loss in Christchurch that Southee could soon face competition for his place.
"It's probably not my question to answer any more. He is a strong leader in the group but Tim's got some challenges in the next little while," McCullum said. "There's other guys coming through who are performing very well, Matt Henry in particular, and it's going to push Tim to make sure he's operating at his best which we saw for a good 12 to 18 months. He's got some challenges but I still believe he's a strong leader in the group and he's just got to smooth out some of his rough edges."
One man who did himself plenty of favours at Hagley Oval was Wagner, who collected match figures of 7 for 166 and was tireless in enacting the team plan of repeated short-pitched bowling to a packed leg-side field. It was a desperate tactic used because the New Zealanders were failing to swing the ball, but Wagner's willingness to bowl long, hard spells will make him an attractive option for the selectors going forward.
"The beauty of Neil is that he makes things happen," New Zealand coach Mike Hesson said. "Even on benign surfaces, where we play the majority of our cricket, he does generate wicket-taking opportunities. I think he got 6 for 70 in the first innings once he decided to bowl 25 overs of bumpers and there are not many people around the world who can do that.
"I have been fortunate enough to work with Neil for a long time, so I know he's a gutsy performer. But I thought the skill he showed, that's a really a difficult thing to do, to get the ball between chest and head consistently and I thought his ability to keep them in that area and keep challenging was world-class and certainly kept us in the match."
Should the selectors decide to grant more opportunities to Wagner and Henry in New Zealand's upcoming Test campaigns, it could mean something of a changing of the guard, with the attack having been based around Southee and Boult for some time. Hesson conceded that choosing New Zealand's attack would not necessarily be as straightforward as it had at times in recent years.
"I think there will be [tough selections]," Hesson said. "Tim and Trent for two years have been exceptional for us but we have different guys in the squad who do different things. We have alluded to Neil. He brings a different option. Dougie Bracewell is a bit different, as is Matt Henry, so within those five we have got, we should be able to get a pretty good attack in all conditions around the world."
New Zealand finished the five Tests against Australia this summer with four losses and one draw, but Hesson said he felt that the battle had been somewhat closer than that scoreline suggested.
"In Australia we felt we were pretty close in Adelaide," Hesson said. "I think over here, to be fair, we weren't close in the end result but certainly felt that if things had been a little different then we might have been able to put a bit more pressure on them."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale