Australians eye a return to the top


“Four days in the mid 40s, I think our preparation has a lot to do with such a clinical performance.”

The Black Caps sit second on the ICC rankings but did not appear to be a world power in Perth although their persistence could not be questioned. They fought back in the second innings and raised concerns about Australia’s ability to handle short-pitched bowling but their own batting through two innings was frail, unable to handle an attack that was one man down when Josh Hazlewood strained a hamstring in his second over on Friday.

The home side also defeated Pakistan twice by an innings and inside four days in a year when they have largely banished the turmoil of 2018 and gone on to enjoy their most successful campaign through all formats since the grand days of 2006 when the side boasted several greats of the game.

India, on top of the Test championship table, appears a lock to make the final midway through 2021 but Australia can strengthen their hold on second spot if they complete a series victory over the Black Caps in the Boxing Day Test.

In terms of the ICC ratings, Australia sit mid-table but should their strong form continue they will press over the next couple of years to return to top spot for the first time since when they were last handed the ICC mace in April 2016.

Captain Tim Paine took over a team last year that had to rebuild its culture in the wake of the sandpaper scandal, and was even unsure how it should conduct itself on the field amid criticism of a bully-boy tag. The on-field banter – without crossing the so-called “line” – has returned on the field, and so, too, has the ruthless streak that was even missing in the Ashes when they lost the final Test at the Oval, leaving the series drawn but the urn retained.

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“We are getting there, we can still get better at it. If we want to be really hard on ourselves, which we are, we threw a few wickets away [on Saturday night] and really good teams wouldn’t have done that,” Paine said.

“We are still improving but certainly over the last 18 months there’s been drastic improvement in this team. Granted we have some players back, which is helping, but there’s been improvement in the guys given a chance 18 months ago and the experienced guys have come back and put some icing on the top. We are moving in the right direction. We get to Boxing Day, we start again.”

Paine praised a batting order that has not been reliant on Steve Smith and said spearhead Mitchell Starc, with match figures of 9-97 and 23 wickets in three Tests this summer, deserved the returns he was getting, having refined his action and ethos after the disappointment of the Ashes.

Hazlewood is set to miss the final two Tests, leaving James Pattinson, Michael Neser and potentially Peter Siddle to jostle to join Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins. Coach Justin Langer has even flagged the possibility of axing Travis Head and going with four quicks and Lyon in Melbourne but that will depend on what MCG curator Matt Page delivers.

Melbourne Cricket Club officials insist the pitch will provide a good balance between bat and ball.

Test greats Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting have backed Pattinson, with 43 wickets at a superb average of 21.79 on Australian soil, to return to the XI.

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