Trans-Tasman foes face off
March 19-23, Basin Reserve, Wellington
Start time 11am (2200 GMT)
The Big Picture
Is there cricket on in Wellington this week? Anyone reading the Australian papers could easily have missed that fact in amongst the round-the-clock Michael Clarke coverage. Nobody will be happier than Clarke when the attention turns to the action on the field come Friday, when Australia begin the first of two Tests on their tour of New Zealand. It is sad that Test series between the two countries have been cut back, while five ODIs and two Twenty20s graced the schedule. But the reality is that over the past couple of decades, most Trans-Tasman Trophy series have been pretty one-sided, with the exception of the nil-all draw in Australia in 2001-02. It will take something very special from New Zealand to change that trend.
The Australians are coming off a home summer in which they won five Tests and drew one, and although the competition could have been stronger than West Indies and Pakistan, it's still a formidable form-guide. Add in the fact that New Zealand's top order is a potential house of cards and it could be a quick kill again. But with the help of Martin Crowe, the home team's batsmen have lifted their training regime in the lead-up with longer sessions designed to simulate match conditions.
It could be a career-defining series for Tim McIntosh, BJ Watling and Peter Ingram, for whom success against Australia would set them up for the foreseeable future, while failure could send them quickly back to the Plunket Shield. The team's hopes are more likely to rest on strong bowling and even without the newly-retired Shane Bond and Iain O'Brien, an attack made up of Chris Martin, Daryl Tuffey, Tim Southee and Daniel Vettori could be a challenge in their home conditions.
For Australia, the goal is obviously to retain the Trans-Tasman Trophy but in a broader sense to prepare this team for the home Ashes series in nine months. There are only two more Tests, against Pakistan in England, before the urn is up for grabs and plans and team selections will be refined. Part of that process is finding the right personnel, so there will be much interest in how Marcus North bounces back from his slump and how the new faces of Clint McKay, Ryan Harris and Steven Smith perform if selected. Contributing to a winning series would be a good start, but Vettori's men will do their best to thwart that plan.
Form guideAustralia WWWWD
New Zealand WDLWL
Watch out for...Who else but Michael Clarke? It will be fascinating to see how he handles the pressure of stepping back in to Test cricket so soon after being hounded by the media over his private life. It is not the first time he has stayed home due to personal reasons. On the 2008 tour of the West Indies, when he rejoined the side after missing a Test due to the funeral of Lara Bingle's father, he promptly made a century in his first game back. This scenario is different but expect a redoubled effort from Clarke, who is keen to show the time off has not affected the form that brought him his highest Test score in the home summer finale in Hobart.
Given the top order's inexperience, Ross Taylor will become even more important than usual coming in at No. 4. He has taken on extra responsibility this summer, having captained his country for the first time, and has enjoyed a productive season with 392 Test runs at 56 without making a century. He played well at times in the ODIs against Australia but was guilty on occasion of throwing his wicket away, and he is keen to play some much longer innings. "At Test-match level there's no time constraints, unless you're chasing a score," Taylor said. "I played some howlers of shots and was disappointed with how I went out. I'm just going to go out there and play straight and play my game. They are the No. 1 team in the world and it's a good gauge of where you are as a player. I've scored a one-day hundred against them, I'd love to put a Test match hundred to that."
Australia have a couple of selection decisions to make, firstly over whether North retains his place at No. 6. The claims of Smith are strong, following his outstanding end to the Sheffield Shield season and his usefulness as another bowling option. But it would be strange to bring the incumbent North and not give him at least one Test to turn around his poor form, so it is more likely he will play. The second query surrounds the third fast bowling spot behind Mitchell Johnson and Doug Bollinger. The uncapped Harris might have squeezed ahead of McKay, who debuted in Perth, thanks to impressive one-day form. The only problem is that Harris is carrying a side injury that forced the selectors to fly over Peter George, the tall South Australian bowler. George is an extreme backup only, and should Harris not recover, McKay will definitely make his second appearance.
Australia (possible) 1 Shane Watson, 2 Simon Katich, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Marcus North, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Nathan Hauritz, 10 Ryan Harris/Clint McKay, 11 Doug Bollinger.
New Zealand's batting line-up is settled for the time being, with Mathew Sinclair's only chance of resuming his Test career being if there is a late injury. It leaves only one decision - two spinners and three seamers or one spinner and four seamers? It is Jeetan Patel's home ground, so his experience of drifting the ball in the Wellington wind could be useful. But the pace and bounce in the centre-wicket practice sessions at the Basin Reserve suggested Brent Arnel might be in line for a debut, which was supported by the distinct green tinge to the surface on Test eve.
"The nature of the pitch brings Brent Arnel into the equation," Daniel Vettori said. "We'll have a good hard look at it tomorrow. If you looked at it now you'd say it's got a bit of greenness in it and a bit of moisture so you look at the seamers, but we'll delay that decision as late as we can."
New Zealand (possible) 1 Tim McIntosh, 2 BJ Watling, 3 Peter Ingram, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Martin Guptill, 6 Daniel Vettori (capt), 7 Brendon McCullum (wk), 8 Daryl Tuffey, 9 Tim Southee, 10 Brent Arnel/Jeetan Patel, 11 Chris Martin.
Pitch and conditionsThe wind was howling so much on Wednesday that one local reporter joked that it was lucky Shaun Tait wasn't in Australia's squad or he might hit 170kph. It was a slight exaggeration but the leading fast men will relish the chance to run in with the assistance of the conditions, while others will toil into the wind. The forecast for Friday is fine and 20C with northerly winds dying out.
The practice pitches have been lively and the Test pitch is green, so the new ball will be a challenge for the top-order batsmen. "It will have a bit of drying today," Vettori said, "but it's probably going to be a typical Wellington wicket where it's got a little bit in it early on and then flattens out to a really good Test match wicket."
Stats and trivia
- New Zealand and Australia have met in eight Tests at the Basin Reserve for two Australian victories, one New Zealand win and five draws
- New Zealand haven't beaten Australia in a Test match since March 1993, when Danny Morrison helped demolish Allan Border's men at Eden Park
- Mitchell Johnson and Chris Martin have each picked up 14 wickets in Australia-New Zealand Tests, but Johnson has done it in two games at an average of 11, while Martin has taken eight matches at 74.14
- Daniel Vettori has the most Test runs, centuries, fifties and wickets of anyone in the New Zealand side
Quotes"We brought a bit of momentum against Bangladesh and Pakistan but Australia are going to be a different challenge. The batsmen are going to be under scrutiny, especially the top five"
"The Kiwis are always tough to play against, no matter which form of the game you're playing, they're very disciplined and they just hang in there for long periods of time. We're going to have to play very well to beat them." Michael Hussey
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.