The popular comparison between Australia and New Zealand is with two sport-loving siblings. For years Big Brother took a passing interest and expected no surprises. Any upset was written off as a fluke, and New Zealand gained consolation instead of congratulation. The contests have always been spirited ... and are getting closer.
The Trans-Tasman Trophy is fought between the Shaky Isles and a continent, but New Zealand have grown up. Where they once rode behind Richard Hadlee during home-and-away series wins in 1985-86, the players now walk in line. Three summers ago they eyed their opponents as stubbornly as the All-Blacks during the haka. Over three Tests - two were seriously rain-affected - the sides could not be split. Neither captain left with a victory, but Stephen Fleming had more to smile about.
Apart from two series against India, it was Australia's toughest assignment since that 16-in-a-row winning streak. New Zealand are struggling with niggles and sniffles this time, and have talked down their chances. Their attack has attracted the pop-gun cliché, and the squad includes Hamish Marshall, a batsman without a maiden first-class century. If they manage a win it will be only their third in a Test Australia. Hadlee set up the first with 9 for 52 and 6 for 71 at the Gabba in 1985-86, and walked off the WACA with 11 wickets and the series three weeks later.
But as the younger brother stands taller, the older one doesn't know whether the threat is comical or serious. Ricky Ponting should remember 2001-02, because the Kiwis will hit hard. Back then, Steve Waugh donated a run-chase at Brisbane and New Zealand finished just ten runs away from taking a Test remembered for the weather and hulking Chris Cairns boundaries. Hobart was also rain-ruined, but at Perth the world champions-elect were turned on in a style they had used to dominate opponents.
Four New Zealanders reached centuries before Daniel Vettori's 6 for 87 almost allowed them to enforce the follow-on. Safety eventually came late on the final day for Australia with some generous decisions from the Zimbabwean umpire Ian Robinson. Three Tests have been the maximum for Trans-Tasman affairs; that one was crying out for five.
Rather than expansion, this summer's contest has contracted and will be decided in two matches over 13 days. It may be long enough to determine an Ashes winner, but a tourist would be scowled at for taking so little time over a South Island ski holiday or a north Queensland adventure. Australia enter from the strength of a final-frontier victory over India, and under-rating the opposition remains their biggest concern. Walking over Bangladesh proves little, although Fleming's double-century and Vettori's 20 wickets stood out. Weaknesses have been appearing since losing three Tests to England during the winter.
Fleming returned from Bangladesh with a mystery illness, Vettori is carrying a sore shoulder that restricts his throwing more than his bowling, and Nathan Astle has a wonky back. Shane Bond and Daryl Tuffey are also missing, and Chris Cairns has retired from Test cricket. Jacob Oram, the allrounder, and the squad of fast bowlers face a tough two weeks.
Hopefully Fleming's illness will not affect his tactical decisions. How he deals with the Australian batsmen should be a feature of the series. Both Waughs were targeted with short balls last time, and Damien Martyn's compulsive cutting was exposed. The best captain in the world needs to be ready for the globe's top team.
Australia have held the Trans-Tasman Trophy since a 3-0 victory in New Zealand in 1999-2000, a series which included the return of Matthew Hayden and the resurgence of Martyn. Both men will again be watched closely as Hayden reacts to a slump in India and Martyn discovers if he can reach even higher than his subcontinental heroics.
A broken thumb has reportedly left Shane Warne without a flipper. Could this be a twist on his trick of introducing a new ball with the summer's fashions? His confidence is high despite the injury that forced him to miss the final Test of a breakthrough series in India, and he marks his run against a favourite opponent.
Warne has already suggested Fleming cannot pick his variations, and the two are good friends. But Warne plans to "nail him", "give it to him" and laugh about it over a beer afterwards. Both teams try to play in the same old-fashioned, aggressive style and matches are anticipated with grudges. Because of this the players - and the countries - seem closer. Almost like brothers.
Peter English is Australasian editor of Wisden Cricinfo.
New Zealand tour of Australia