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Perhaps because New Zealand cricket had existed in the shade of Australia for so many decades - one Test was played in 1946, and regular Test exchanges did not start until 1973-74 - Australian cricket loomed over New Zealand. So it was with a sense of wonderment, and delight, that New Zealanders, in November and December 1985, greeted the success of Jeremy Coney's team as they took, by two Tests to one, their first-ever series against Australia. With a little more luck it might have been 3-0, for between New Zealand's innings victory in the first Test at the Gabba and the six-wicket win at Perth, New Zealand narrowly missed victory in the nip and tuck struggle at Sydney. It was, in fact, only New Zealand's third series victory outside New Zealand. Pakistan 1969-70 and Sri Lanka 1983-84 provided the earlier instances.
Were New Zealand so good, or Australia so bad? It was a little bit of both. For a decade or so, New Zealand bowlers had toiled on Australian pitches which favoured truly fast bowlers and proficient, shot-making batsmen. New Zealand never had quite enough of either. Yet in late 1985 New Zealand were presented with pitches which, at the vital times, favoured the skilled medium-fast bowler who could hit the seam rather than the man who might hit the helmet. These same pitches, with not enough bounce to delight the cutters and the hookers, were allies to the batsman who played sensibly and straight. In other words New Zealand, and especially Richard Hadlee, the sharpest and finest-tempered of New Zealand's bowling swords, found pitches very much of the New Zealand mould, except for that strip of spinning mischief at Sydney.
From the moment Hadlee laid waste the Australian first innings of the first Test, nine wickets for 52, a display which justified the use of that overworked adjective great, he and the New Zealanders had the Australians in their grip. Hadlee, who caught the tenth wicket in that first innings, took six more in the second. In the second Test, on a drudge of a pitch, he still acquired seven wickets. At Perth, on a bony, slowish pitch, he took another eleven, taking his total for the series to 33; few as a result of bouncers, many through the artistry of a medium-fast bowler on pitches which gave him such a vast canvas.
With Ewen Chatfield's probing support, and with the summoning of the off-spinner, John Bracewell, for the second and third Tests, the New Zealand bowlers seldom gave the slow-footed, prodding Australian batsmen any respite. This did not happen by accident. G. M. Turner, the former New Zealand and Worcestershire batsman, was appointed cricket manager for the side, and from his friends in England he learnt the strong and weak points of those Australians who toured there earlier in the year.
Apart from their record-breaking first innings in Brisbane, the New Zealanders never found pitches of sufficient pace or trustworthiness to produce big scores. But throughout the series their batting, like their bowling and fielding, was tightly organised and disciplined. Apart from some weak batting on the spinner's pitch at Sydney, the New Zealanders worked solidly at their batting. They took their time and they played straight so that, with Turner's work in the background and Coney's cheery leadership, their whole team effort was tidily integrated.
Martin Crowe almost stole Hadlee's considerable thunder at the Gabba with the classicism of his 188 which, with John Reid's fluent if less spectacular 108, produced the match-winning stand of 224 for the third wicket. Like too many others he faltered at Sydney, but at Perth he hit 71 and 42 not out, all the time playing within his considerable powers. In the Tests, John Wright had four scores of 35 or more, while his equally diligent opening partner, Bruce Edgar, hit three half-centuries.
The Australians, still recovering from their 1-3 series defeat in England, had lost some of their playing sub-structure to the unofficial tour of South Africa. On the other hand, the Australian players were newly armed with expansive contracts from the Australian Cricket Board and encouraged by the official urging that they were the best cricketers in the country. Allan Border, by deed and word, tried mightily to rebuild the defences of Australian cricket, but in many cases he was using bricks of sand. Too many of his batsmen, and even Border himself, produced a technique which made them vulnerable to a bowler of Hadlee's class. Too often his faster bowlers, on pitches of no real pace, tried to blast and bounce the New Zealand batsmen out - and seemed dismayed when the pitch and the batsmen did not oblige.
In January the New Zealanders, with Stuart Gillespie and Bruce Blair in place of Lance Cairns, who had retired, and Trevor Franklin, returned to Australia for the Benson and Hedges World Series Cup contest with Australia and India. This time they found less success. For one thing, they had lost the drill that Geoff Howarth used to bring to their one-day play. They had adequate bowling, and potentially good batting, but perhaps only two or three times did the two marry. They found the Australian bowling more geared to the seaming and sometimes indifferent one-day pitches, while the Indians, perhaps below their best one-day form, were still full of uncomfortable surprises.
The New Zealanders complained publicly about pitches which placed too much emphasis, in one-day matches, on winning the toss, and they were often less than impressed with some of the umpiring. But in reality they played below their own form and hopes, whereas Australia had improved, at least in one-day tactics, and the Indians just pipped New Zealand for a place in the finals.
Test matches - Played 3: Won 2, Lost 1.
First-class matches - Played 6: Won 2, Lost 1, Drawn 3.
Wins - Australia (2).
Loss - Australia.
Draws - South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales.
Non first-class matches - Played 13: Won 3, Lost 6. Drawn 3, No result 1. Wins - India (2), Australia. Losses - India (3), Australia (3). Draws - Queensland Combined XI, Queensland Country XI, Prime Minister's XI. No result - Australia.
Match reports for
Queensland Invitational XI v New Zealanders at Townsville, Oct 18-20, 1985
Queensland Country v New Zealanders at Carrara, Oct 22-23, 1985
South Australia v New Zealanders at Adelaide, Oct 26-29, 1985
Queensland v New Zealanders at Brisbane, Nov 1-4, 1985
New South Wales v New Zealanders at Sydney, Nov 15-18, 1985
Prime Minister's XI v New Zealanders at Canberra, Jan 22, 1986