Before this tour began, the New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming described the prospect of locking horns with Ricky Ponting's world champions as "mouth-watering". Six weeks later, it was his eyes that were more likely to have been watering. Of nine matches - three Tests, five conventional oneday games and the first-ever men's Twenty20 international - Australia won eight and drew one. To make matters worse, they remorselessly exposed serious technical shortcomings in the New Zealand side, inflicted significant physical and mental damage on several players, notably Fleming, and stripped them of their second place in the one-day rankings. Australia, meanwhile, sailed to the highest score in the rankings' short history.
Home supporters had also thought the prospect mouth-watering, especially after the Boxing Day tsunami had forced the abandonment of the Sri Lankan tour. Although Australia had demolished Fleming's side in two one-sided Tests across the Tasman Sea the previous November, they had shared the one-day Chappell-Hadlee Series after rain washed out the deciding game. And in 2004, New Zealand's win-rate in limited-overs cricket was fractionally better than their opponents' - 82% to 79% - so the enthusiasm might have seemed justified. It didn't last.
Regarded by some as world cricket's canniest captain, Fleming, who had ended his previous wanderings in the batting order to open regularly after the retirement of Mark Richardson, was the Australians' main target. He was tormented first by Brett Lee in the one-day internationals and then by Glenn McGrath in the Tests. After seven scores below 20 from nine international innings, he at last conceded defeat and reverted to his more natural place in the middle order for the final Test. He did then make a halfcentury, but failed again in the second innings and cut a dispirited figure as Australia romped home with a day to spare.
"It's certainly character-building, if you want to put it that way," Fleming reflected at the end of the series. "It's tough. You're beaten up. You get criticised and quite rightly so. The public expect more, but what they probably don't understand is the pressure this Australian side are putting on the opposition. It's not just us; they've mauled Pakistan and India recently. They've turned over the best the world has to offer. We've just got to go back to the drawing-board and come up with something that gets us closer."
New Zealand could justifiably point to the absence through injury of some key personnel. Fast bowler Shane Bond had not fully recovered from back surgery and played no part. Nor did all-rounder Jacob Oram, who was also suffering back problems. Middle-order batsman Scott Styris hit a brisk fifty in the Twenty20 match, but suffered a recurrence of knee trouble in the first one-day international and did not face the Australians again. The New Zealanders' best player, left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori, was another back sufferer.
The Australians, in contrast, had an embarrassment of riches. Lee, at full pace again after undergoing ankle surgery in March 2004, had been unstoppable in the VB Series, and he was again in the one-day games here, stunning crowds and opposition alike with his frightening pace and improved control. He produced the fastest recorded delivery of his international career when he unleashed a 160.8kph (99.9mph) scorcher in the fifth game in Napier, and in all grabbed ten wickets in five games at 16.90. But with the settled attack of McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Shane Warne carrying all before them in the Tests, Lee's performance was still not enough to get him into the five-day side. Two days before the opening Test in Christchurch, he talked about continuing exile flattening him emotionally.
The decision to omit Lee, arguably the game's most explosive bowler, appeared to have backfired on day one of the Test series. Ponting chose to field, but by the close his attack had made few inroads into the New Zealand innings, which had rattled along to 265 for three. However, this Test - like the two that followed - was snatched from New Zealand's grasp by Adam Gilchrist, arguably the game's most explosive batsman.
Gilchrist altered the momentum of the game each time he came to the crease. His 121 from 126 balls in Christchurch guided Australia from a potential disaster to a nine-wicket win. A week later he blasted 162 from 146 balls to put Australia on course for an innings victory before Wellington's notoriously bleak weather decided the outcome. And in Auckland his unbeaten 60 from 62 balls was a decisive factor in another nine-wicket triumph. There were other exceptional performances during the disappointingly one-sided tour. Ponting hit an awesome unbeaten one-day century in Napier and a match-winning Test double (105 and 86 not out) at Eden Park, while Damien Martyn stroked a peerless 165 in the rain-plagued Wellington match. For New Zealand, Hamish Marshall seemed to have arrived as a genuine No. 3 by averaging almost 45 against the world's most potent attack. Vettori, too, achieved remarkable accuracy considering the duress he was suffering from both his back and the Australian batsmen.
But Gilchrist aside, the most talked-about contribution came from McGrath, who celebrated his 35th birthday just before the Australians landed. His claim at the end of the series that his ageing body had never felt better was difficult to dispute after a Test return of 18 wickets at 15.72. His legendary accuracy was never better demonstrated than at Auckland when on the first day he conceded just 20 runs from 24 overs, 17 of which were maidens. He finished the series on 499 Test wickets, one shy of what was then his career goal. It was one of the few honours to elude the Australians on one of their most emphatic overseas tours.
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