Australia and New Zealand don't get around to playing one another at Test cricket very much, and when they do the Kiwis tend to promise more than they deliver.
These meetings mean too much to them – their Ashes, former skipper Martin Crowe once said – which sometimes makes for a paralysing effect.
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Australian captain speaks to the media ahead of the first Test against New Zealand in Wellington.
Memorable series are few and far between. All series are few and far between. Of the Australian XI that last appeared in a Test match in New Zealand in 2010, 10 are now retired. The other is Doug Bollinger.
This time, though, there is more cause to hope for an even, entertaining and meaningful rubber.
The teams are better matched than usual, and the stakes higher. Notionally, this is second versus sixth, but the bunch at the top of the Test table is tight. At home, the Kiwis are a false sixth. After winning none of their first 10 Tests under Brendon McCullum, they have won 11 of 18 since, beating all the major countries except Australia and South Africa, who they have not played.
In the past five years they have lost one of 16 home Tests. They are once again the little engine that could. Bookmakers make Australia favourites, but only just.
Victory by any margin would elevate Australia to No.1. If that seems a little premature and counter-intuitive about this still-nascent team, who else has better claims just now? Possibly only England, who by beating South Africa away reached the El Dorado of cricket teams nowadays, victory offshore. This is Australia's ever-looming Everest, if that is not too geographically confusing.
A drawn series would maintain the status quo. But a 1-0 win for the Kiwis would relegate Australia to third, and a 2-0 win would send the Australians to fourth, just one point above New Zealand in fifth. If this was footy, the algorithms would be clacking, and the headlines cranking. Everyone talks about the need for a proper Test championship while overlooking the proper and robust Test championship already in place.
Better, as a cluttered and hectic fixture list begins to thin out, this series is practically standalone, competing neither with Twenty20 fripperies, nor with peak football in any code. It is the solo stage Test cricket yearns for, but rarely gets.
The knowns and unknowns are positively Rumsfeldian. This is a new Australian team, still being pieced together, and completely untried in New Zealand conditions, which might begin to look to the Australians like an English neo-colonial plot. Trent Bridge still haunts; Dave Warner brought it up unbidden the other day. It is the war that must not be mentioned.
The Kookaburra ball will swing longer here than it did in Australia, but not as long or far as the Dukes did in England. In fact, it probably will behave much as the pink ball did when these teams met last December in the landmark day-night Test in Adelaide, that Trent-Bridge-by-the-Torrens.
Fortification for Australia now is that they prevailed narrowly over proxy England in that match, after a contest that will attract no complaint if re-enacted here.
By contrast with prototypical Australia, New Zealand are a settled team in a familiar environment, with an inspiring leader and a galvanised following; one report on Thursday suggested day one would be a sellout, which would be astounding.
But the Kiwis still have not quite shaken off their historic inferiority complex when met by Australia; witness last year's World Cup final. Even McCullum played that day as if not quite fully believing or trusting in himself. Possibly only in the Hadlee era did the Kiwis play as if they expected to beat Australia, and often they did.
McCullum's farewell lap will be a factor, but weighing which way? Emotion can buoy a team, but just as easily can overwhelm it.
This week, Brad Haddin recalled how Ricky Ponting would caution his team to play on skill, not emotion, because no team could beat Australia on skill. Skill was the known, emotion the unknown. Haddin urged Australia to take the same attitude now, but even in this there is an intrigue; on New Zealand pitches, skill might be the issue for Australia.
Tensions usually run high in trans-Tasman cricket, but only as high as between big and little brothers. Steve Smith does not strike as the type to play or tolerate games, and McCullum's studied mantra throughout his era is that his team is not good enough to concentrate on anything other than the game. Their cheek is all in the cricket. Let others dwell on underarms; they're intent on overthrow.
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