It has been a tough season for visiting captains to Australia against a dominant bowling attack. Between them, Kane Williamson and Azhar Ali have scored 119 runs in eight innings. It is not the only reason the home side are on the verge of a summer clean sweep, but it’s a big part of it.
Williamson has one Test left, at the SCG, to turn the numbers around in what has been a series to forget. Some of the problems have been out of his control (injuries to Trent Boult and Lockie Ferguson and the shot selection of some of his top order) but his captaincy has been under the microscope and the runs, that so often come in a torrent, have turned into a trickle.
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On another day the lbw decision in the second innings in Melbourne – that was shown to just be clipping the top of leg stump – would have gone his way, but such is the game in tough times. After a promising start to the first innings in Perth he fell to a spectacular catch at second slip by Steven Smith then gloved the first ball from Nathan Lyon to short leg in the second. His dismissal in the first innings at the MCG, a skewed top-edge pull, was one of more un-Williamson-like shots you will see.
Former captain Brendon McCullum was critical of Williamson during the second Test although made the point of having a one-on-one conversation with him.
“It’s not just Kane. Many of our players have had a pretty tough time over here and that’s the pressure that gets put on,” New Zealand coach Gary Stead said. “You saw his dismissal it was pretty unlucky, and on another day it can be given not out and he carries on and could have got a hundred.
“Kane is fine. Like all players you go through ups and downs and some times are more challenging. This is obviously a challenging part of his career, as it is with all players.”
For Australia it has been a case of a plan very much coming together. “It’s one of the things we most talk about in our strategy, make sure we keep the opposition captain under pressure so we are doing that at the moment,” coach Justin Langer told Cricket 360. “He’s a very, very good player, one of the gentlemen of the game, so if we can do that for the rest of the series it gives us a big advantage.”
There has been an acknowledgment in recent years that Williamson, who captains across all formats, needs his workload managing. After this tour, New Zealand have a full visit by India before returning to Australia for ODIs then hosting them for T20Is to complete the season. Williamson missed the T20I series against England in November due to a hip problem but has also sat out the occasional match, although with the T20 World Cup less than a year away that will be a tricky balancing act. “Everything is always up for discussion and it’s always healthy to debate,” Stead said.
In terms of the immediate prospects for the Sydney Test, New Zealand’s batsmen were given a template of how they can succeed from the unlikely source of makeshift opener Tom Blundell whose second Test century – following his debut hundred against West Indies when he was the wicketkeeper – was a stirring display for the embattled team.
“The way he went about crafting his innings was exceptional in only his third test match, and first as an opener, showed the way that we have to find more from our guys,” Stead said. “He’s sat on the sidelines the last couple of series but you can see the improvements that are being made. It’s fantastic for him and our team that he showed the capabilities are there for us to perform against a great Australian team.”
As far as how the squad as a whole is managing after two crushing defeats in a series that started with such high expectations for a side that had reached No. 2 in the world, Stead said team spirit remained intact and paid tribute to the vast numbers of travelling supporters who cheered them to the end at the MCG.
“We were obviously beaten up a wee bit by Australia again. I want to acknowledge how well they played; we’re up against a quality team at the very top of their game. We’re a tight knit bunch and it’s not the first time we’ve been beaten and won’t be the last. Our ethos is about trying to find small improvements, day in and day out.
“In my time involved in cricket in New Zealand I’m not sure I’ve ever seen or experienced anything like that. Our players acknowledged the crowd at the end, and if we could replicate that at every test ground…it felt like the Barmy Army that lifts England. Hearty congratulations to those people who got out and kept supporting us. When times were tough they kept singing and chanting and it was pretty special.”