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Cricket news - Southee, Wagner find the perfect pitch
Tim Southee and Neil Wagner have combined to bag 14 of the 16 Australian wickets to fall so far in the Perth Test
"You tried fighting fire with fire. But it doesn't work at times there." Not for the first time during the chat, Simon Doull follows his comment up with a hearty laugh. He's recalling the time he flung a ball picked up in his follow through at Ricky Ponting and struck the Australian in the middle of the back. It was on a sunny afternoon at the Gabba back in late 1997, and as Doull insists, Ponting had been given not out despite having "blatantly nicked one down the leg-side". The unnecessary throw directed intentionally at Australia's then brightest new batting talent was a consequence of frustration, angst and also perhaps a feeling of 'here we go again'.
This was Doull's second tour, and he'd witnessed each one of Australia's top 7 batsmen score at least one century during his first visit four years prior. And when Ponting was given a potential reprieve, he couldn't help but let all the negative thoughts from before the tour creep right back in. He wasn't the only fast bowler from New Zealand not named Richard Hadlee, however, to have gone through that sense of helplessness, which has been a norm for those of his ilk during Test tours across the Tasman.
So when Tim Southee collected a Joe Burns push down the wicket and threw it back with force at the batsman, hitting him in the leg, you wondered whether that exasperation had set in a bit too early. We were only in the seventh over of the series after all and even if Australia had got off to a brisk start, this was a bit premature to get vexed about your prospects. But unlike with Doull 22 years ago, this was Southee's fourth tour already to Australia. And he'd arrived here with a rather underwhelming bowling average of 50 in 7 previous Tests. Maybe he'd seen enough in the early going itself for the ominous 'here we go again' mindset to set in. Or so you worried. Southee & Co have since though done anything but give up.
And even if the first Test in Perth has continued to slip away since then from the Kiwis, they'll at least take heart from the amount of heart that Southee and Neil Wagner have shown over the first three days in unforgiving and at times excruciating weather conditions. Not to forget the absence of their partner, Lockie Ferguson. With eight wickets in the match and the potential to add a few more on Sunday (December 15), Southee has managed to pull his average in Australia down to 40 already.
For like Doull puts it, there can't be a tougher place to tour for a Kiwi paceman than Australia. Not only do the conditions here force you to be "on your game time and again", it also doesn't help that the pitches Down Under have never quite suited the skill-set of the quintessential New Zealand swing bowler, which is generally the genre of new-ball bowlers who have come across historically.
"In my case, and in a lot of cases with guys who I played with or saw, we were slightly along the wicket bowlers. But here you need genuine into-the-wicket bowlers if the ball's not swinging too much. When you look at the Australian bowlers who've done or do really well in their conditions, unless you're a Brett Lee or Mitch Starc bowling at 150 kph, the likes of (Glenn) McGrath, (Jason) Gillespie during my era and Hazlewood and Cummins now have been tall guys, who don't really swing the ball too much but are genuine into the wicket nip-around bowlers," says the former fast bowler turned globe-trotting commentator.
Doull averaged 46.45 across 5 Tests while the likes of Chris Martin (average of 41) and Danny Morrison (61.40) didn't fare too well either. They too, like him, were the kinds you'd describe as having been bowlers who got balls to kiss rather than hit the surface before reaching the batsman. Trent Boult's average of 33.47 is largely influenced by the 7/101 he took with the pink-ball in Adelaide 4 years ago. The one bowler who toured alongside Doull and on a subsequent tour with an Australia-suited approach was Chris Cairns. And while his average of 39.03 across 9 Tests looks slightly better, he never quite got the support from the other end and also conceded runs at a rate closer to 4 than 3 runs per over. It's, of course, unfair to compare any of these numbers with Hadlee's remarkable record on Aussie soil - 77 wickets at 17.83 in 12 Tests. But Hadlee could do both, as in move the ball in the air but also then settle in on a very hard Aussie length and keep pounding away on it.
"To bring your length back a little and bowl into the wicket, it all sounds a lot easy. It's not easy to change your length automatically and go away from what you've known and what comes to you naturally," explains Doull.
That's exactly what Southee has managed to do here in Perth though, and it's seen him taste unprecedented success. It's taken him three previous tours to get it right of course, much like with India's Ishant Sharma, who despite starting well in 2007-08 only managed to get his act together on Australian soil last year during India's first-ever series win. The slightly slow pitch at the Perth Stadium has certainly helped Southee's cause in terms of allowing him to still focus on his natural lengths and strengths. All three of his wickets in the late burst under lights on Saturday (December 14) came with the short or short-of-length delivery. He's also got wickets with the fuller length though, like the one he bowled Tim Paine with late in the day with a reasonable amount of movement off the surface.
"Tim Southee's able to pull that length back and find a length that might get the ball through to the wicket-keeper more. And when you speak of Ishant, he had (Jasprit) Bumrah leading the way from the other end last year and they found ways to dismiss the top-order," says Doull.
Southee has found Wagner, who was inexplicably not picked in the XI for a single Test in 2015, this time around to provide similar support and to complement his plan of attack. Whether it's the unchanged 9-over marathon burst in 41 degrees on Day 2, the relentless spells on either side of it across the first three days of this Test or the out-witting of Steve Smith with the short-ball in both innings, Wagner has already shown the Kiwis what they've been missing for nearly three decades. And though it might seem irrelevant in the context of this Test, Wagner's spell on the third night could well give New Zealand reason to believe that they could turn this series around even if Perth does head to what looks like an inevitable conclusion.
Though Doull does admit that the Kiwis haven't been "as adaptable as we should have or could have been" over the years, the present bunch at least has the luxury and privilege of playing in Australia's two marquee Test venues for the first time in over 30 years later this month. And the wickets at the MCG and the SCG, Doull believes, will be as close to being Kiwi in nature as you'd find outside New Zealand.
"Australia have generally taken us to the bouncier surfaces of the Gabba and the WACA, where more than anywhere you need hit-the-wicket bowlers. And like Pakistan now and many teams before have found out at the Gabba, if you don't get your lengths right, you just fetch. If these boys can get through this pink-ball Test, they have every chance of doing really well in this series. MCG and SCG are a lot like NZ," says Doull.
Having shown his worth already on the occasionally sluggish and uneven bounced Perth Stadium pitch, you'd expect Wagner to be a threat in conditions he should feel a lot familiar with. And even Joe Burns didn't hold back in heaping the Kiwi seamers with praise for their tireless short-pitched efforts on the third day.
"It's easier said than done to say you'll come round the wicket, or for Wagner to bowl long periods of the short ball to that field," he said before revealing how facing a bouncer-barrage at an average speed of 130 kph can be more awkward than having a tearaway pacer aiming for your head. "You feel like you can play it. It's challenging, different because they are asking you to play the shot to get off strike and you are bringing in all their catchers." And it's a strategy that Wagner and Southee will persist with even on the flatter pitches in Melbourne and Sydney. It'll also mean that they'll be heeding to the Doull diktat on how to frame success in Australia.
"You have to continue to go after them and if you back off or are timid against them, they'll own you. Dare I say, they're like the schoolyard bully. It's not a nasty slight. If you don't stand up, they'll hurt you time and time again," he says.
To their credit, despite their dire situation in the game overall, Southee and Wagner have not backed off at any point, and the hurt has been in some ways kept under more control than usual. If only the batsmen could have stood up the same way in the first innings. No period of play exemplified the visitors' attitude with the ball than when Wagner went after Matthew Wade just before the close of play.
It was an intense clash with Wade taking a number of blows on the body. There were also intimidating stares and wry smiles exchanged between the two combatants, which continued till the last ball as Wade pushed a full delivery back to the bowler. Wagner picked up the ball and rolled it back with some force towards the stump, and Wade obliged by paddle-sweeping it towards fine-leg. Though Wagner initially raised his hand in dispute, the two soon got together in the middle and parted ways post a friendly chat. They'll be back on Sunday to fight fire with fire, and you'd believe so will the Kiwi fast bowlers come the second and third Tests, even if they do get there with their backs to the wall and the need to hit the ground, and wicket, running.
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