New Zealand seek pick-me-up in hazy Sydney

Big Picture

For so long a match given focus and attention through its association with the McGrath Foundation and breast cancer research, this year’s SCG Test is being played against the literal backdrop of a mighty bushfire storm ravaging Australia’s south-east. There will be times when that backdrop will become very much the foreground, via the smoke haze that has enveloped Sydney at regular intervals over the past two months, forcing a Big Bash League match in Canberra to be abandoned and very nearly doing likewise for a recent SCG Sheffield Shield match.

While the Australian coach Justin Langer has publicly pined for rain – some of which is forecast to hit Sydney early next week – and offspinner Nathan Lyon has said that he will be happy to play through smoke relative to the trials faced by firefighters this summer, New Zealand are simply looking for some sort of turnaround to their on-field fortunes after a pair of heavy defeats under lights in Perth and during the day in front of an enormous Boxing Day Test crowd in Melbourne.

There will likely be changes for the visitors, not least the inclusion of the former New South Wales off spinner Will Somerville, while illness has forced both Kane Williamson and Henry Nicholls to miss the lead-up to the SCG Test. Williamson had spoken frankly about the need for his team to find ways and means to deal with the sustained pressure placed on them by Australia’s pace bowlers in particular. The counter-punching hundred by makeshift opener Tom Blundell at the MCG provided some clue as to the way forward, although this is far easier said than done.

Tim Paine’s men, meanwhile, have the carrot of an unbeaten Test match summer within their reach, and also another 40 points to eat into India’s runaway lead at the top of the World Test Championship table. Their next five-day match is not until June and a scheduled series in Bangladesh, the major reason for the inclusion of the wrist spinner Mitchell Swepson in the squad.

Form guide

Australia WWWWL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
New Zealand LLDWW

In the spotlight

For all the talk about New Zealand’s hold over Steven Smith in Perth and Melbourne, specifically Neil Wagner’s ability to defeat the No. 4 batsman with his sustained diet of short-pitched bowling, he has still formed one half of the most important partnerships of the series so far. A stand worth 132 with Marnus Labuschagne in Perth and then similar unions with Labuschagne, Matthew Wade and Travis Head in Melbourne gave Australia the first innings footholds they needed to reach 400 and therefore dictate terms from there. So in Sydney there will be a fascinating battle in terms of New Zealand’s efforts to dismiss Smith more quickly, while he looks to raise his scoring rate.

Even if Kane Williamson rises from his sickbed to play at the SCG, Tom Latham will still be critical to New Zealand’s chances of putting together a substantial first innings for the first time this series. Scores of 0, 18, 50 and 8 do not sound like much, but there have been moments in each innings since the first where Latham has looked capable of fighting his way through the new ball bursts of the Australian pacemen and thus being a bulwark for the innings. Latham may be helped now by the addition of a more proactive opening partner in Tom Blundell, and in turn the rest of the batting order would breathe easier from some sort of head start.

Team news

Mitchell Swepson has been widely discussed as a potential inclusion for Australia, ahead of the tour to Bangladesh later this year, but he would have to displace either one of their in-form quicks or, more outlandishly, one of the top six.

Australia (probable) 1 David Warner, 2 Joe Burns, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Matthew Wade, 7 Tim Paine (capt & wk), 8 Pat Cummins, 9 James Pattinson, 10 Mitchell Starc, 11 Nathan Lyon

Kane Williamson and Henry Nicholls missed both training days ahead of the Test due to flu-like illness symptoms, with Tom Latham set to captain in Williamson’s stead if he is ruled out. Matt Henry is a strong chance to play, and Will Somerville, the former NSW spin bowler, looks likely to come into the side also.

New Zealand (probable): 1 Tom Latham, 2 Tom Blundell, 3 Kane Williamson (capt), 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Henry Nicholls, 6 BJ Watling (wk), 7 Colin de Grandhomme, 8 Tim Southee, 9 Matt Henry, 10 Will Somerville, 11 Neil Wagner

Pitch and conditions

The old adage about “in England you don’t look down, you look up” for prevailing conditions will have a strange echo in Sydney this week, with the likelihood of smoke haze enveloping the SCG, particularly on the Saturday, due to the unprecedented rolling thunder of bushfires across the south-east of Australia this summer. Some rain is also forecast for the final two days of the game The pitch can be expected to take some spin.

Stats and Trivia

  • New Zealand last played a Test at the SCG in November 1985, as part of the last summer in which the ground hosted two Tests within the same traditional summer window. It has since hosted Tests in October, between Australia and Zimbabwe in 2003 and between Australia and a World XI in 2005. Australia won the November 1985 match by four wickets.

  • New Zealand’s only previous visit had been for a draw in January 1974, however the visitors were extremely unlucky. Day two of the match was lost entirely to rain, and after setting Australia 456 to win and claiming two wickets on the fourth evening, New Zealand were deprived of the chance to push for victory by another washout on the final day.

  • David Warner needs 23 runs to surpass Greg Chappell (7110) on Australia’s all-time run-makers list.