Boxing Day 2019 brings the Black Caps back to east Melbourne and gives them the opportunity to compete on better terms than what they were served in Perth. They will find unwrapped the Chrissy gift of a slower, lower pitch more akin to what they played England on across the ditch.
To perform adequately on the new Perth track without considerable practice and competition is to be invited to ballroom dance on an ice rink wearing your aunty’s knitted Yuletide socks. The significant positive for New Zealand was that they harried the Australian batting with some short, sharp stuff, just about bowling them out twice.
Twelve months ago, Australia arrived at the Boxing Day Test with a very different outlook. On December 26, 2018, Australia commenced a game that ended in a record-breaking loss. India won that Test by 137 runs and claimed the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, having lost all 11 of their previous series here going back to 1948.
Pat Cummins starred with ball and bat, and was touted for a rise up the line-up. The batting order on Boxing Day one year later bears a striking resemblance from No.7 on down to that which crashed to Jasprit Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja and Ishant Sharma, but almost no resemblance to the top six. Only Travis Head remains of the specialists. Marcus Harris, Aaron Finch, Usman Khawaja, Mitchell Marsh and Shaun Marsh are all gone.
The cricketing year that followed that loss has clear watersheds.
March 28: The suspensions from international cricket of David Warner and Steven Smith – and that meant cricket played by the Australian national team as opposed to tournaments such as the Indian
Premier League or the Toronto GT20 League – came to an end.
Both players were immediately added to the ODI World Cup squad. Warner went on to score 647 runs, second only to Rohit Sharma by one run. His Ashes stats are completely the opposite, but the red-ball team drew the series and retained the urn. Steve Smith had less impact during the World Cup with 379 runs, leaving him 13th on the runs list, but he was saving his genius for the Poms.
August 1: The five-Test Ashes series began and Don Bradman’s reputation was pursued by a man playing his first Test since March 28, 2018. The series was drawn at two apiece and was dominated by the bowlers of both sides, as predicted by pundits and casual observers alike. There is zero doubt that without Smith Australia would have lost the Ashes.
August 17: Jofra Archer sconed Smith. The new concussion substitute rule was evoked and Marnus Labuschagne’s ascendency began. The substitute has to be “like-for-like” and Labuschagne did his utmost to imitate Smith’s run making, as well as his idiosyncrasies. It worked beyond the most optimistic promise.
The Ashes were returned, Australia were beaten in the World Cup semi-final, but issues remained as to the strength and reliability of the batting.
With the bowling attack of Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon and James Pattinson, Australia have had to make only modest totals to win games. So far in the Australian summer they have made plenty against an immature Pakistan battery and a 400-plus first innings in Perth that provided the foundation of an overwhelming result against the Kiwis, albeit with the visitors a bowler short through a torrid opening day.
The jury is in on Australia’s turnaround: the batting stocks have risen; the bowlers continue to be brilliant.
The major gain for Australia’s batting strength has been the rise and rise of the Lord’s substitute. While the expectations of Smith continuing his Bradman-like form every time he takes centre have not been realised, the new No.3 has found himself not only in permanent possession of first drop but challenging Smith for the title. Well, in the very short term at least.
Joe Burns, who was so irrationally scorned for the Ashes, has looked the goods while at the other end to a reinvigorated Warner.
Matthew Wade, who looks – and looks at you – like a grizzled veteran, has earned his spot by making tough runs rather than using tough words.
The last batting survivor of Boxing Day 2018, Head, needs a few runs at No.6, but while the team is winning he will get an opportunity to consolidate.
The jury is in on Australia’s turnaround: underline and bold Steve Smith, italics for David Warner and spot an asterisk next to Marnus Labuschagne. The batting stocks have risen; the bowlers continue to be brilliant.
Boxing Day 2020 is on the horizon; India will be back and so too a chance for the ultimate redemption.
Merry Christmas and good fortune in the new year to all.
Geoff Lawson is a cricket columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.