Australia have taken a stranglehold on the three-Test Trans Tasman series with New Zealand after a comprehensive 208-run win at the Gabba, but with the second AUSvNZ Test in Perth starting Friday, here are four key points to consider.
Mitchell Johnson set for retirement?
Mitchell Johnson has sparked frenzied rumour of retirement, after conceding in a press conference at the WACA Ground this week that he is aware of his cricketing mortality. Whilst opposing batsmen won’t be putting champagne on ice just yet, Johnson at 34 years of age and currently sitting alongside Brett Lee as Australia’s equal fourth highest Test wicket taker (310 wickets) did admit he contemplates retirement regularly and knows the end is not too far away.
“I think about it most days,” Johnson told reporters when quizzed about his future, before adding, “It is probably getting to be that time, but to be honest I am just trying to play each game and enjoy it like I have said before.”
The firebrand quick, who sits behind only Dennis Lillee, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne on the all-time Australian record wicket takers list, was coy when pressed on timing.
“It could be after this game. I might just go ‘I am done’, but I’m still enjoying my cricket at the moment and enjoying the challenges.”
Perth could conceivably represent the perfect farewell for Johnson, who has adopted the city as his home after moving from Queensland. The WACA is chief among his list of favoured grounds. He boasts 42 wickets from six Test matches at the venue, which includes memorable innings of 8/61 v South Africa in 2008 and 6/38 v England in the 2010 Ashes series.
It would remain more likely, however, that Johnson will see out the Australian summer, with a second three Test series against a depleted West Indies following from Boxing Day.
To sledge or not to sledge?
Much has been made of Australia’s pack approach to hounding opposition batsmen over the years. This series has particularly focussed on the matter, with New Zealand – under Brendon McCullum – very much considered on the other side of the behavioural fence. The two sides also bristled one another in Australia’s World Cup win, earlier in the year.
Mitchell Starc earned the ire of his captain Steve Smith and the ICC, with the beanpole quick fined half his match fee in Brisbane, for flinging the ball in the direction of New Zealand tailender Mark Craig when he was obviously in his crease and posing no threat of a quick single. Craig was apparently guilty of the most callous of crimes, that being, obstinate in the face of a Kiwi collapse, as he and Trent Boult formed a tenth-wicket rearguard action, ultimately in vain, as Australia cruised to victory.
The reaction was in fact louder from the commentary booths and press galleries, with both Craig and his skipper McCullum, preferring in the spirit of the game not to make significant fuss of the matter.
Smith used his post-match press conference to issue something of a public dressing down, describing the incident as “pretty disappointing” whilst suggesting he would follow up personally. Hardly the action of fearless crusaders, but by fair comparison, a significant step in the direction of common sense, from the oft used not much in it rhetoric we have become accustomed to seeing from the Australian camp, when defending itself against incredulous cries of very naughty boys.
It is unlikely to yield an end to Australia’s on-field antics however. With the hosts one-nil up in a best of three series, they’ll know a strong start to the second Test in Perth can ensure they keep the Chappell-Hadlee series trophy.
Sledging is usually adopted when the protagonist is on top. It’ll be a subplot within itself to see if the New Zealand school of deportment continues to smile through gritted teeth, should any flash points materialise in Perth.
Can New Zealand form an attack?
New Zealand’s new ball attack partnership of Trent Boult and Tim Southee was always going to be important for the tourists’ chances of winning on Australian soil. The duo finished the Gabba match with combined figures of 3-258. If Southee’s output can be partially excused by a back complaint, for Boult the reality was far more grim.
There was little swing for New Zealand’s quicks and other than a tense first hour on day one, as Joe Burns and David Warner dug in, there was little of anything else the Kiwi bowlers were able to generate to worry any of Australia’s top order once they were set.
Injury clouds remain on Tim Southee, although he is expected to front for New Zealand when play starts on Friday. His ability to find a true length on a WACA pitch that is revered for its natural bounce will be critical.
Equally pressing for the Black Caps will be the need for their third seamer to make an impact. Doug Bracewell is an honest cricketer who gives his all, but set against an Australian pace-battery boasting form, fitness and vigour, he will need to mirror the role that Josh Hazlewood provides for Australia, in not only getting through stock overs, but picking up vital wickets.
Another wicketless performance from Bracewell in Perth will almost guarantee Australia victory. Particularly with Boult and Southee short of a gallop.
Has Australia finally settled a top three combination?
For many seasons now, Australia have searched the breadth of domestic competition and re-jigged their batting line-up in an attempt to recreate something remotely akin to the cricketing homogeny of Hayden, Langer and Ponting, at the top of the Australia order, over the course of its golden era.
The retirement of Chris Rogers and the recoil of skipper Steve Smith back down the order from his lukewarm exploits at first drop have at first glance not been disastrous. Number three in particular has been Australia’s biggest issue in recent times. Many have attempted to take the mantle, but none have truly made it their own.
Although David Warner scored Test centuries in both innings for an incredible third time in his career in Brisbane, his brilliance was understandably, in context, overlooked as Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja both took tentative steps towards embossing their Australian Test cricket status.
Burns made a crafty 71 in the first innings before unleashing a mesmerising knock of 129 off 123 balls in the second innings as the hosts turned the screws. Khawaja faced a different test. His knock came after Warner and Burns had laid the foundation, meaning his efforts would have to go to great lengths to earn legitimate praise. Praise he received – over the course of a six-hour plus innings that returned 174 runs and a guarantee that he will play each of the three Tests in this series as he looks to cement his spot.
Far tougher explorations of Khawaja’s and Burns’ mettle lay wait, but the prospect of feasting on an under done Kiwi pace attack on two of Australia’s most fecund batting wickets will only whet the appetite of Australia’s new top order guard.