In taking on Australia at home over the next month, New Zealand’s cricketers wish to overturn one element of history while also paying homage to another.
The Kiwis’ two most successful recent tilts at beating the men in baggy green took place in 2001 and 1995. In the more recent encounter, the batsmen dropped anchor and insisted on leaving the ball as much as possible. That approach worked so successfully that Glenn McGrath endured one of his poorest series of all, and the visitors came within a couple of wickets of snatching the series in Perth.
Sixteen years before, a youthful Australian side gutted by retirements and South African rebel tour contracts had no answer to Sir Richard Hadlee at his peak. Moving the ball both ways while sticking to an immaculate line, a pair of thrashings in Brisbane and Perth fell either side of a narrower win for Allan Border’s bedraggled team in Sydney.
This time around, New Zealand’s captain Brendon McCullum has no intention of instructing his batsmen to shelve their free-spirited batting tendencies in contrast to 2001. But there is well-founded confidence within the visitors’ ranks that a moving ball in the hands of Tim Southee, Trent Boult and company can confound another transitional Australian team after the fashion of Hadlee.
For McCullum, the chance to play a three-Test series in Australia will sit high on any list of his career highlights, especially given how shabbily New Zealand have been treated by their wealthier neighbour in terms of fixtures since 2010. He is determined to maintain a positive, aggressive attitude to the task, something that cost him during the World Cup final earlier this year but has brought him great rewards elsewhere.
“We’ve got to keep the positive mindset, that’s what works for us,” McCullum said. “It’s not always going to work but it gives us our greatest chance and we’ve said that time and time again over the last couple of years. That sits comfortably with us, it’s more authentic that style of play to the personnel in the unit and probably with us as people, as Kiwis. We’ll go and play some positive cricket and hopefully the gods will shine on us.
“The World Cup was a great event and amazing to be part of, but we ran second in the event and we were proud of what we were able to achieve and how we gave ourselves a shot at the title. Unfortunately we weren’t good enough on the day and Australia deserved to win, but it’s not a motivation for us. Our motivation is to be as good as we possibly can, and to come over here and try and get the result which is to win the three-Test series.”
The fact that both sides played England during the northern summer offers an intriguing insight into their strengths and weaknesses. New Zealand’s aggression got them into trouble at Lord’s but they rebounded strongly to win at Headingley, whereas Australia also finished the stronger but only after the Ashes had been whisked away by a combination of Steven Finn, Stuart Broad and heedless batting on a pair of seaming pitches.
“To a degree, but I think Australia’s different at home,” McCullum said when queried on how much the Ashes result gave New Zealand an idea of how to make the hosts uncomfortable. “England in England are tough to beat and with a different ball as well. The series oscillated so much – England got the spoils at the end but it certainly wasn’t one sided.
“For us we’ve got to play positive cricket, we know we’ve got a good line up, a team which we know well within ourselves, we’ve got good balance, and we’re going to have to work out some areas along the way where we think we might be able to attack Australia, and areas we have to shore up as well, because we know we’ve got some really explosive batters and they’ve got some dangerous bowlers as well.
“That’s the art of trying to work out how you’re going to compete on a tour, but they’re going to be tough, and we’ve got to make sure we play well.”
It should not escape the attention of those who have hesitated to schedule matches been Australia and New Zealand for reasons of competitiveness or financial value that the last time they played one another it was actually the Kiwis who were victorious, on a green Hobart pitch not dissimilar to those prepared in Birmingham and Nottingham.
Tim Southee, who will lead in McCullum’s stead against the Prime Minister’s XI, said the swinging ball against aggressive Australian batsmen would be a prime weapon for the New Zealand attack. “I think the strength of myself and Trent particularly is the way we can swing a ball and it does help if it is swinging,” he said, “but I think we’ve also had results where it hasn’t swung.
“We’ve performed in all sorts of conditions in all parts of the world now, and although we like it when it swings, we know if it is not swinging it is not the end of the world. We do have other plans and things up our sleeve as well. But if does make a bit of a difference if there is a bit of swing in the air and I think last time we played in Brisbane there was a little bit of swing around – James Pattinson swung it too nicely that day – so yeah hopefully we can get it swinging.”
Talk of sledging and confrontations had to arise after the events of the World Cup final, but it is fair to surmise that this will be a series played in friendlier spirit based on recent evidence. Under McCullum, New Zealand have become a byword for fairness, while the Australians were notably short of verbal venom during the Ashes, even before the retirements of two chief provocateurs in Brad Haddin and Shane Watson.
“I don’t know, time will tell. We’re certainly not spending any energy on that sort of stuff, I’m sure the series will be played in great spirit,” McCullum said. “Obviously with Steve Smith and with Darren Lehmann as coach, the two teams will get on well.
“It will be healthy competition on the field and it should be played in good spirits, but for us the focus will be very much on our skills rather than anything else. We’ll just go and play our cricket and have a good time while we’re at it. We’ve got a great bunch of guys that we’re playing with and we’re out there representing our country, and that’s where our focus is rather than on the other stuff.”
As for the experimental third Test, the first to be played under lights with a pink ball, McCullum acknowledged that not everyone involved had leapt into it with the greatest enthusiasm. However he summed up the position New Zealand were placed in by noting that it was highly unusual for them to be granted a three-Test series, so if the third had to be played with a pink ball then it was better than getting two.
“The two boards were in discussions but from our point of view we arrived at the fact we were going to play a Test match with the pink ball,” he said. “We knew we were going to get some preparation, so from a players’ point of view we were going to allow ourselves to be able to get ready for the Test.
“It is what it is, I know there’s been a bit of negativity around it, but I guess we’ll find out with the pink ball whether it works or not, and that’s one of the good things about playing the Test. We normally only get two-match series so it’s quite nice to have a third one, so we’ll deal with the third one when it arrives.”
The pink ball’s debut will be a moment of history. But it is not only kind New Zealand want to be making this series.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.