New Zealand’s Eureka moment at the perplexing Basin Reserve

Green mamba pitches are a hallmark of Tests at Basin Reserve, Wellington. The surface is often indistinguishable from the verdant square and outfield until the groundsman paints the crease lines. Batters lower their ambitions at the sight of the terror, all the way down to gritty thirties. Pacers rub their hands in glee, approaching the analyst with a weird request: finding the captain’s win-loss record at the toss.

In recent times, however, the seemingly unmowed tracks at the venue have flattered to deceive, rather astonishingly. Sent in, teams have managed first innings scores of 580/4, 435/8 and 460 in the last three Tests. As the Australian openers put up a fifty partnership, Tim Southee grew anxious. Was a familiar tale unfolding?

Such helpful tracks can be red herrings, making bowlers think wickets are a given. If you are lulled into this false sense of entitlement, discipline goes out of the window and greed overpowers sensibility. New Zealand being the hosts knew better. A gusty breeze behind him, Matt Henry elicited tight, gasp-inducing leaves from Usman Khawaja after squaring up Steve Smith twice in his first over thanks to the scrambled seam, with both the edges fetching streaky boundaries.

Practically on the move due to his exaggerated trigger movement which takes his backfoot right across the stumps, Smith was hit thrice on the thigh pad by first change Will O’Rourke and even had a frontfoot lbw appeal against him turned down. 27 runs came off 15 overs in the first hour of play as New Zealand denied Australia a runaway start, with Smith’s pursuit of a kamikaze single indicative of his bubbling edginess.

Although the scoreboard was slowed to a crawl, the fact that New Zealand had no rewards to show for their control meant they were nailing the defensive lengths when the conditions were ripe to attack. In fact, just 7 out of the first 129 deliveries were targetted at the stumps. As soon as the realization dawned upon the home side that they were not inviting enough drives and forward blocks, which was towards the end of the morning session, the rays of result broke through the clouds of attrition.

Smith and Marnus Labuschagne fell in identical fashion, sitting in the crease to poke at away-nibblers. It was an uncharacteristically withdrawn knock from the protege known for occupying the middle with incandescent purpose. On a couple of occasions, he stonewalled half-volleys, lumbering to 1 off 27 balls before the curl engineered by Scott Kuggeleijn’s round-arm action extended his lean patch. Within the last 13 months, Labuschagne’s Test batting average has dipped from 60.82 to 50.82, the nadir since November 2019.

What makes his lack of intent all the more ironical is the philosophy he’s incorporated into his practice of late. ‘’I hit a lot of balls. I just spend a lot of time in the nets. But over the time I’ve sort of taken away from my energy in batting and substituted it for time. And I think that’s a mistake. If I am going to bat for a long period of time, I’m going to need that energy and high intensity. That’s when I’m batting at my best. When I’m calling loud and getting into the contest. Getting through the good balls and finding ways to score,” Labuschagne said this week.

Bowling in the fuller zone was proving very productive, leaving New Zealand feeding off the success of their recalibrated lengths. Henry had rigorously tested Khawaja’s awareness of the off-stump with the new ball from over the wicket and the southpaw passed the test with flying colors, notwithstanding the theatrical oohs and aahs. Having done the hard yards, he dispatched short balls from William and Kuggeleijn to get a move on. With two of Australia’s most dependable Test batters back in the hut, the onus was on Khawaja to hold the innings together, more so considering the middle-order fragility Australia experienced in the five home Tests against Pakistan and West Indies, suffering collapses of 6/68, 4/16 and 5/10 before the match-defining nosedive of 8/94 at the Gabba.

Henry’s rapacious intensity coupled with the strategy of pitching the ball fuller knocked the big domino down. Khawaja played all over the inswinging brute while Travis Head, his mind possibly preoccupied with the bouncer owing to the placement of leg-gully and deep square leg, flashed at William’s tempter as Australia plopped from 61/0 to 89/4.

Henry drew an outside edge off Smith’s bat that was snaffled by ‘keeper Tom Blundell diving in front of first slip.

Head has a penchant for counter-attacking, so it’s fair to adjudge that his dismissal was a by-product of the full-length enforced rut Australia found themselves in. Basically, New Zealand claimed four prized wickets for just 28 runs by course correcting their length.

The advantages of bowling a length landing closer to the batter are manifold. To begin with, the fuller ball swings further because it is in the air for longer, and therefore has more time to deviate. As per Hitting Against The Spin data backs this claim; the fuller the length the larger the deviation in the air. New Zealand were able to extract the juice of the deck by throwing the ball up there, as exemplified by the swing which formed the basis of Labuschagne and Khawaja’s errors in judgement.

Secondly, fuller balls deviate less off the pitch. That is, they hit the ground with a smaller vertical component to their velocity, and so are less likely to deviate off the pitch, and do so to a lesser degree. A ball banged into the hard length (8 metres) hits the ground 30 per cent harder than a half-volley (3 metres) and deviates on average about 15 per cent more.

This is then exaggerated by the fact that any deviation on pitching will have a greater effect the further the ball travels afterwards. It explains the large number of plays and misses in the first hour. The ball was seaming appreciably off the good length but since the openers refrained from feeling for the ball, nicks were non-existent, by and large. The deviation was, essentially, too great to produce an edge. Pitching the ball fuller reduced the degree of deviation, increasing the potential for a graze.

Last but not the least, fuller lengths bring the stumps into play more, snowballing the scope of bowled and lbw dismissals. Cameron Green’s rearguard act dragged Australia to 279/9, but the fact that New Zealand stand a good chance to wrap the innings under 300 boils down to the amendment that was made when the peekaboing sun was about to reach its zenith.

Broadcast Schedule

WT20 2024
AUS v NAM, North Sound (WLW)
12th June
Start time: 1:30 am BST
USA v IND, New York
12th June
Start time: 3:30 pm BST
WI v NZ, Tarouba, (WLW)
13th June
Start time: 1:30 am BST

See the full schedule