Match Analysis

Inspirational Tom Blundell stands apart in defeat

The opener's brilliant century gave the visiting fans at the MCG something to cheer for

Forget Bay 13. From this day onwards, the new home of the MCG's most raucous and infectious cricket spectators should be bays M21 and M22, down at mid-off in the Great Southern Stand.
This was where New Zealand's travelling army of Boxing Day Test supporters put in a display that was, save for Tom Blundell's wonderful second-innings 121, the most stirring by the visitors during the entire match. And, it was wholly undeserving of both the vast margin of defeat and the gratuitous presence of police and venue security on virtually every second step of the two bays they were occupying. This was, after all, one of those scenes that provides a reminder of why the game is so loved, and why moments of it will stick in the mind's eye long after the contest is decided.
Blundell added to the richness of the memory by donning a cap in the final stage of his innings, clouting the spin of Nathan Lyon and Marnus Labuschagne with some relish before he was the last man out to a combination of the two. He left the ground to the universal applause of 19,270 spectators, enough to take the splendid match total of 203,473 beyond the combined tally of attendances for the Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth Tests. Blundell had given them something to remember the week by, besides a shuddering Australian victory.
"It's pretty hard not to notice them," Blundell said with all the understatement he could muster. "They were pretty loud and it's fantastic to get that support away from home, so full credit to them, and it was pretty special hearing your name getting chanted out. I think they appreciated us coming over. The last few days they've been so loud and been fantastic. It's the result we didn't really want, but they kept on chanting and full appreciation to them."
For Kane Williamson, the New Zealand captain, the displays of Blundell, and Neil Wagner earlier in the Test, were emblematic of the kinds of the performance his side needed to show more of over the first two Tests of the series. Although they were trounced in both games, the visitors showcased a level of ebullience and fearlessness that took the game to the Australians and their industrial-strength bowling attack in particular.
"Tom's innings was magnificent," Williamson said. "It was hard work out there and the task was immense, but you look at some small positives and that was a truly fantastic innings. He led the way and it's important that we all take a little bit from that.
"Also, Neil Wagner again; just the effort from the bowlers throughout was something that is inspiring to us as a team and that never give up attitude. But, at the same time, I think if we're looking for areas to improve, there are a few of them, but we do need to try and put Australia under a little bit of pressure before the first-innings total gets past that point of control.
"The crowd were truly incredible and to experience that. I think all the guys will never forget it. I guess the only thing you can compare to it would be some for the moments we had during World Cups where they were just so engaged, but this was even more unique because we were coming second for the most part of this match. They were incredible."
Blundell's efforts helped provide an example of the sort of connection between the New Zealand team and their travelling supporters, who did not necessarily come to the MCG expecting a major victory over such a mighty and better-resourced opponent. They, however, did want to see something more in terms of fight and entertainment - the occasional blow landed on Australia amidst the flurry coming the other way.
"One of the points I was trying to make to Kane this morning was that there were 20,000-odd New Zealanders who have travelled from across the ditch to come and watch New Zealand," former New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum had said. "And even though New Zealand was under an immense amount of pressure the New Zealand national anthem was being belted out from the stands. And it's just how proud of this team that he's built that New Zealand is and they don't expect that the New Zealand side is going to win every game and they can understand that this is a tough place to tour.
"But they want to see the team play with a smile on their face, that same positive attitude, and carry themselves in that confident manner and occasionally land a few blows back on the opposition, so they know that they've been in a contest. And I just tried to remind him to try and play for that young boy who fell in love with the game way back in the early days when he started playing cricket. Sometimes the pressure and the extremities that you get put under at this top level can take a little bit of that enjoyment away."
There was less for Williamson to enjoy in his post-mortem of a 247-run defeat at the MCG in the wake of a 296-run hiding in Perth. Looking back at the four days, he agreed that more precision had been needed from the bowlers on Boxing Day, when the ball moved extravagantly at times but not consistently enough to dislodge Steven Smith and Labuschagne, who cleared the way for Travis Head and Tim Paine to take the game beyond the visitors' reach.
"There was probably a missed trick there," Williamson said. "If we're being critical, we did need to be better; we needed to put the ball in the right area for longer periods to try and create a few more opportunities. We went past the bat a few times, but perhaps we were still a bit short on that front. Certainly nothing against the effort; the effort is always there, and then it did change, hardened up during that second session and Australia were brilliant again. Hats off to the way they've been playing.
"When that does happen then you do need a big batting performance and without a doubt their bowlers certainly came in and hit the wicket hard and bowled exceptionally well and made life very difficult for us. That is the nature of playing cricket over here, so as a batting unit we do need to be a lot better."
How they perform better is a big question, for as Williamson conceded, Australia's pacemen have been able to impose consistent pressure in ways that have left a usually patient New Zealand combination running short of forbearance and composure. "The plan isn't to be conservative, but obviously the bowling has been of a high class, which is what you expect," Williamson said. "They've got a number of assets to the way that they bowl, the pace and the bounce, but I think their accuracy is at the moment what is most challenging.
"They're putting the ball in a very demanding area and getting a little bit of movement out of the surface. Guys are committing to plans for long periods and at times finding scoring quite challenging. It's trying to get your head around that, understand that that is what to expect for long periods, and then there's a few ways to try and adjust your game around that as best you can, while considering that cricket is still cricket and you may get some good balls or you may get some things that doesn't quite go your way and you have to accept and move on.
"But committing to a plan as well as you can, much like what Tom did today, is a good start. I don't think he's opened too many times, but he's certainly a very good keeper-batsman and been in a number of squads for a period of time, so to come into this Test match, a fantastic occasion, grab the opportunity opening. I know he's done it a few times in white-ball cricket, but on this sort of stage and take it in his stride and go out and play his natural game, was brilliant to see."
Despite the defeat and its margin, there was some inspiration for New Zealand to take out of Melbourne, and on the final day of the Test it could at last be seen from both sides of the boundary. Blundell and the Beige Bays, come to think of it, would not be the worst name for a band.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig