You always know when the Aussies are in town. The hype and hoopla and the media banter leading up to it is almost inevitable. Steve Smith's side has plenty of characters who talk big. The more pertinent question is whether they can back this up with performances away from their comfort zone.
A gloomy cloud cover coupled with green-tinged pitches will offer a stern examination to the Australian batsmen, who are busy breaking one record after another on lifeless surfaces. Meanwhile, Tim Southee and Trent Boult are at the forefront of New Zealand's recent home record which has been nothing but impressive. Their last Test loss on home soil came way back in March 2012, against the then no. 1 South African side. Kane Williamson is looking impossible to dismiss, and he will relish the opportunity to carry the batting lineup once again.
However, this isn’t to say that Australia cannot spoil Brendon McCullum's retirement party. The likes of Smith & Warner have a remarkable work ethic and they will be complemented by a potent seam bowling combination of Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson and Peter Siddle. Once the sun comes out, even those greenish pitches can become easier for batting while the taller Australian bowlers could extract considerable lift to trouble the Kiwi batsmen a la Dushmantha Chameera.
McCullum is unanimously credited for resurrecting the Blackcaps from a seemingly bottomless pit by infusing a touch of flamboyance to their playing style. He will be officially retiring at the end of the series. The 34-year old had publicly stated that finishing a stellar career in his homeland with a Test series against Australia would mean a lot to him. His teammates will have to bring the fight to an opposition who, despite losing the Ashes in England, showed signs of promise in 2015 with respect to competing away from home.
Can the World-Cup holders dominate a red-hot ODI outfit?
Australia have formulated their ODI strategy on filling their team with hard-hitters and targeting the opposition bowlers relentlessly by running hard between the wickets. The interesting aspect of their World Cup success was that they seemed to have dynamic batsmen throughout the order who did not fret about wickets falling at the other end. The bowlers were more than happy to build up pressure by drying up the runs and inducing batsmen to play false shots through fielding like a pack of vultures.
It remains to be seen whether such an approach will work in the smaller stadiums of New Zealand. The Blackcaps themselves have a fiery top-order with the likes of Martin Guptill and Colin Munro viciously targeting the shorter boundaries. Matt Henry has impressed with his remarkable consistency in white ball cricket. He has been supported by Boult and Milne, who have added variety to the bowling attack. The young spinner Mitchell Santner has withstood several onslaughts by sticking to his line and length. Alongside Corey Anderson, he will also bolster the lower-order as the two teams bid for a trophy named after two iconic cricketing families – Chappell and Hadlee. The previous ODI between the two teams (before the anti-climactic final) turned out to be a classic, with the hosts edging out the Australians in a low-scoring encounter at Eden Park.
The opening ODI is at the same venue, but the recent trend has changed to such an extent that the Australian bowlers could be under a lot of pressure. The next two contests are scheduled to take place in Wellington and Hamilton, where swing could play a pivotal role. With Southee likely to miss the limited-overs leg of the series, Boult will have to step up if the Kiwis are to restrict the power-packed batting lineup of the tourists.
Pride, Ranking, Prize Money and much more on the line
A tussle between two neighboring nations always has an extra edge. At the end of last year, Australia won a series which was fraught with DRS controversy. Nevertheless, the 2-0 scoreline does not inform you about New Zealand's scrappy performance in the hostile atmosphere, down under. The Blackcaps will be relieved to return to familiar conditions during the return series.
Aside from the usual bragging rights, there is an extra incentive in the Test series: the visitors will go to no. 1 in the ICC rankings if they win the series. A bounty of 1 million USD awaits the premier ranked Test team in May. The Aussies have openly spoken about their burning desire to return to the top of the sport's traditional format.
Even though Southee is expected to recover in time, the hosts will be sweating on the fitness of their premier pacer. The bowling unit, which is likely to comprise of the usual suspects in Boult, Henry and Wagner, would relish the opportunity to take advantage of the swinging conditions. Mike Hesson, the head coach, had implied that the curators could leave a considerable amount of grass on the pitches. If that's the case, then Williamson, Taylor and Latham have a huge role to play in posting significant scores on the board. The pugnacious BJ Watling, who is one of the finest wicket-keeper/batsmen on the circuit, also adds immense value with his contributions down the order. He could make a huge difference to the final total.
Australia have a swashbuckling opener in Warner who flays bowling attacks without any mercy. But the extravagant sideways movement could pose a hefty challenge to the left-hander. Skipper Steve Smith (almost) proved his ability against the swinging ball with a couple of hundreds in England, and would want to lead from the front with the bat. Adam Voges will have the unenviable task of shepherding the inexperienced and fallible middle-order. In the bowling department, Hazlewood's steep bounce is a perfect foil for Pattinson's pace and Siddle's control. Nathan Lyon's durability will be under the scanner as the New Zealand pitches could be unforgiving to spinners.
He will have to play his part in the 1st Test at the Basin Reserve in Wellington, where the surface tends to flatten out during the business end of a Test. The 2nd and final Test is at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch, which has the reputation of being a haven for swing bowlers.
In the words of swing specialist Trent Boult, the series is shaping up to be the pinnacle of New Zealand's home season, with both teams hungry for success in the Trans-Tasman trophy.
1st ODI- Eden Park, Auckland- February 3
2nd ODI- Westpac Stadium, Wellington- February 6
3rd ODI- Seddon Park, Hamilton- February 8
1st Test- Basin Reserve, Wellington- February 12-16
2nd Test- Hagley Oval, Christchurch- February 20-24