Stumps Australia 6 for 167 (Burns 53, Labuschagne 50, Southee 4-63) and 416 (Labuschagne 143, Head 56, Wagner 4-92, Southee 4-93) lead New Zealand 166 (Taylor 80, Starc 5-52) by 417 runs
An important half-century for Joe Burns, an inevitable one for Marnus Labuschagne, a five-wicket haul for Mitchell Starc and a lead of 417 runs. Australia had plenty going their way on the third day in Perth. New Zealand, meanwhile, braced themselves to fight against the current and they’re going to have to keep at it for another two whole days.
As gutsy as Kane Williamson and his men are, that looks an impossible task, especially considering the vagaries of the pitch. Three days of wear and tear has introduced uneven bounce into play. When Steven Smith is beaten by one keeping low and another rearing up in the twilight session, you know the ball is doing tricks. And this, by the way, was a ball 46 overs old.
Australia did excellently to earn the iron grip they have over this Test match. Such was the faith they had in their fast bowlers that they went out to the field on Saturday afternoon and immediately settled into a short-ball plan.
Starc and Pat Cummins were the only ones left standing. Josh Hazlewood had already been sidelined with a hamstring strain. The heat was in the 40C range again. New Zealand were already five down, but their lower-order rarely ups and folds like a deck chair. There was a chance it could have gone all wrong, that the two big quicks would be bowled into the ground and Ross Taylor, who was well past fifty, could have marshalled the resources he had left to some semblance of safety.
But what really happened was, after swaying out of the way of a ball that was coming for his nose, BJ Watling was slow to get in line with the follow-up delivery and was bowled. A man who had come into this game with Test scores of 77, 105*, 205 and 55 had been one-twoed by Cummins’ ruthless precision. He has 52 wickets this year, 14 more than his nearest rival.
Taylor took on the short ball but his biggest test came at the hands of Nathan Lyon. The offspinner’s first over included a ball that scythed through the gap between bat and pad and nearly bowled Taylor. Ever since then, he began to look unsure of his scoring options because he was unsure how much the ball will spin. Eventually, a beautifully tossed up offbreak took Taylor’s outside edge as he played inside the line and he was caught for an otherwise flawless 80. With that being the only substantial score of the New Zealand innings, they were bowled out for 166.
Having given up a lead of 250, there was very little New Zealand were in control of, but even there they were found wanting. Labuschagne was given a life when he was on 4 when a mis-hit pull shot against Neil Wagner was dropped by Colin de Grandhomme running back at square leg. For the next several moments, the fielder just lay there on the ground, face down, contemplating what could have been. This was a mere three overs after they had worked out David Warner for 19 off 63 balls. There was a moment to be seized there, just as there was late on the second day when they began batting under lights, knowing full well that if they could have survived that initial burst, batting in daylight would have been much much easier. By the way, Labuschagne went on to make 50 off 81 and push his Test tally up to 1000 after only 12 Tests.
New Zealand wouldn’t be faulted for the effort they have put into this Test match, especially considering they had only a handful of days to prepare for these conditions, but they haven’t been able to win the key moments in this game.
Burns did though. He left the field in the first innings when he needn’t have and he played like a man conscious of that fact. Being stuck on 0 for 22 deliveries didn’t fluster him. Scoring opportunities drying up as the pink ball got soft didn’t affect him. There were a few balls outside off stump that had him fishing but outside of that he was solid for most of the time he spent at the crease to make 53 runs. His dismissal – a Tim Southee bouncer got too big on him and he could only fend it away to gully – only served as another reminder of the amount of life there still in this pitch.
Banging it in was how Wagner got rid of both Labuschagne and Smith and then Australia went from 1 for 131 to 6 for 167 at stumps. Banging it in was also how Starc completed his five-for. He looked to have bounced de Grandhomme out – umpire Aleem Dar certainly thought so – but when the batsman took the option of DRS, replays seemed to indicate the ball might have just gone off the helmet on its way to Smith at second slip. HotSpot couldn’t catch the ball that high up. Snicko showed a flat line but the ball and glove were so close as they passed each other that third umpire Marais Erasmus felt the evidence he had wasn’t conclusive enough to overrule the on-field call.
Pretty much the same thing happened when it was de Grandhomme bowling and seemed to have knocked out Warner with a bouncer, but umpire Dar didn’t give it out on-field and replays indicated the ball had bounced off the batsman’s shoulder and into second slip’s grasp. Dar’s time in the spotlight wasn’t done just yet as he found himself being tackled by Mitchell Santner who was trying to provide cover for a throw at the stumps in the 36th over. It really was a funny old day.