Test matches, Test series, heck, Test summers don’t get more convincing than that. After eviscerating Pakistan before Christmas, Australia have now finished toying with New Zealand. Insatiable with the bat and relentless with the ball, Australia proved once again that in home conditions they are near unbeatable.
“It’s hard to put a finger on something, but just the level of concentration and probably not doing as many silly things was good,” explained Marnus Labuschagne on a hastily constructed dais in the middle of the SCG. His words were in response to a question about his staggering form with the bat, but they could just as easily have applied to Australia’s performance overall.
The Sydney Test, like the summer as a whole, was a demonstration of focussed, ruthless cricket. The batting was orthodox, captaincy unfunky, and there were no balls of the century. But Australia refused to concede an inch, ball by ball by bloody ball, driving New Zealand to distraction. The outcome is something statistically jaw-dropping, but the gaudy numbers being etched into history are underpinned by discipline and graft.
No example typifies this more than Labuschagne, player of the match, and the series. The 896 runs he plundered is the second-most in history for a five-Test Australian summer, and for the time being he is the nearest we have to The Don. But his highlights reel would be comparatively modest fare. Runs were mostly accepted with the minimum of fuss into the leg-side, the product of the batsman’s diligence forcing bowlers to err. Stylistic flourishes were rare, although he executed his cover drive gracefully, especially the variation that required his wrists to flick his blade from in to out and manoeuvre the ball to the off-side from close to his toes. But these were infrequent garnishes. The bread and butter were dot balls, left outside off or defended with soft hands after moving Steve Smith-like back and across so that his pads eclipsed his stumps.
David Warner was similar. He ended the summer with 786 runs, placing him sixth in the all-time stakes for a five-Test home season, but he did so with a strike-rate of 58.81 against the Kiwis, well below the 72.85 that covers his entire career. Warner strode out at the Gabba far from assured of his long-term future after a disastrous Ashes tour failed to rid him of the taint of Cape Town. Six weeks later he was raising his bat on his way into the SCG members, unbeaten on 115, and celebrating the last of his team’s eight centuries across the five matches.
Nowhere was the absence of “silly things” more apparent than with the ball. Australia’s attack against New Zealand was patient and hard working, with each of the four main bowlers securing economy rates under three and averages no greater than 22.50.
It is an attack now led by Pat Cummins, the 26-year-old showing the way spell after spell, landing the ball on a probing line and length, forcing black helmeted batsmen to play more often than they wanted, numbing their fingers with heavy deliveries. It was consummate partnership bowling. Over the course of the battle for the trans-Tasman trophy Mitchell Starc may have secured three more dismissals than Cummins’s 12, and Nathan Lyon five further still, but there was no doubting who the standard bearer of Australia’s attack has become.
Perhaps the only downside to a summer of red ball dominance for Australia was the inability to cement the make-up of the top six. There is a chasm separating Labuschagne, Smith and Warner from the rest at present. Joe Burns, Matthew Wade and Travis Head are all fortunate the Sheffield Shield is not currently producing any compelling cases for promotion, but a strong second-half to the domestic campaign from someone like Alex Carey or Will Pucovski may yet see Australia’s starting XI reshuffled during the winter tour to Bangladesh.
But while the sub-continent in June is the next stop for Australia’s Test outfit, planning is already underway for India’s return down under next summer for a mouth-watering four-Test series. “It’s hard not to be looking at that,” Tim Paine told reporters. “We’ve got some people employed in Cricket Australia who are already looking ahead at that series.
“We are certainly a different side from what they played against last year and there’s more at stake with Test Championship points,” Paine added. “If we can continue our upward trend from the last 12 months, then you are looking at two of the best sides, so it will be an awesome series. They showed last year they have a pace battery that can be every bit as threatening as ours so it will be one to watch.” If Australia repeat their form of this lopsided summer against the best in the world, it certainly will be.