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NZ vs Aus, 1st Test, 2023-24 – Inside knowledge could aid Australia but batting concerns linger

The Australians know more about the conditions at Wellington’s two most famous golf courses, Royal Wellington and Paraparaumu Beach, than they do about the city’s famous Test ground, having played both more recently than they have a Test match at the Basin Reserve.

Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc have been Test cricketers for more than 12 years and neither have played a Test match in New Zealand, let alone Wellington.

But they do have a pretty knowledgeable resource to use into ahead of their first Test in Wellington in eight years, with former New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori working as Australia’s assistant coach.

Vettori played 21 Tests here for New Zealand and captained six of them during his 17-year Test career. It wasn’t surprising to see Cummins and coach Andrew McDonald tapping into that knowledge during a lengthy discussion in the middle on Tuesday.

“We haven’t seen Dan this tour, he’s been hanging out with the Black Caps,” Cummins joked on Wednesday. “No, he’s got good insights. He’s played a lot here. Again, nothing groundbreaking about this venue, but it’s always good to hear the insights. He’s played a lot here, windy days, not windy days, different wickets.

“I think that wind factor, can be real here and just some of the ideas on how to get through that.”

Vettori has also clearly warned the Australian captain against making rash judgements on the Basin pitch based solely on how it looks. Neither team were able to sneak a peak at the strip on Wednesday as it remained under covers due to persistent rain. However, on Tuesday it was verdant and scarcely distinguishable from the rest of the lush green square and outfield until the groundsman painted the crease lines.

But armed with Vettori’s knowledge, Australia know not to be fooled. In the last three Tests played at the ground the team winning the toss has sent the opposition in on similar-looking pitches and conceded first innings scores of 580 for 4, 435 for 8 and 460. The team that has lost the toss and been sent in has won two of those games with England losing the third by one run after asking New Zealand to follow-on.

Unlike the green pitches in Australia during the summer where bowling first was a preferred choice, here it is not as clear cut.

“It’s a live option,” Cummins said. “I think coming from Australia, it’s rare to turn on the TV and see a green wicket that looks like the turf here. But over here it’s pretty normal. But I don’t think it’s as scary as perhaps what it looks. It seems like there’s been plenty of first innings scores that have been big. I think the range of first innings scores goes from 120 to 580 or something like that. So we’ll have a look tomorrow and make up our mind then.”

The pitch and the conditions are just about the only debatable issues for Australia on this tour. There are no injury issues to speak of and no selection debates to be had.

The sight of Australia’s selector on duty Tony Dodemaide pulling his golf clubs off the luggage carousel in Wellington airport was indicative of how settled they are. They are set to play with the same XI for the third straight Test and have only made one change in the previous five, with David Warner retiring and Cameron Green replacing him in a reshuffled batting order.

Australia are so confident in their group that they have only brought three reserves with them to New Zealand in Matt Renshaw, Michael Neser and Scott Boland.

“We feel in a really good position,” Cummins said. “The last couple of years have obviously been quite successful with these guys and also the other guys that are traveling with us, Neser, Scotty, Renners have all had a bit of exposure as well so we feel like even if anything happened we’re pretty well placed to bring one of those guys in. There’s real calmness around the group. Everyone’s played Test cricket. So it doesn’t feel like we ever need to reinvent the wheel.”

That they haven’t overacted to that off-colour performance speaks volumes about the environment Cummins and McDonald have cultivated in recent times. It is an environment that New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon revealed he greatly admired and copied within his National Party during last year’s election campaign.

But while Australia are having a lovely time in New Zealand, enjoying the hospitality and the world-class golf courses on their way to a 3-0 T20I series sweep, the Test side needs to be paying attention.

West Indies, and particularly Shamar Joseph, merely prised open some widening cracks that had been developing in Australia’s batting line-up for a while.

There was some surprise within Australia’s camp that Neil Wagner was not selected for this series, but it is with good reason. Will O’Rourke’s emergence has been impressive. Australia should be wary. They also have plenty of intel. O’Rourke played twice against Australia A in first-class matches in Lincoln and Mackay last year and impressed the Australia A set-up on both occasions with his pace and bounce, which included Australia assistant coach Andre Borovec, Dodemaide and chair of selectors George Bailey.

With their recent experience against Joseph and Pakistan’s Aamer Jamal, Australia’s batting has some scouting to do.

“I had a little bit of a look,” Cummins said. “I think the batters will get together at some stage today, I’m guessing. Everyone does their own planning. Even a couple of the opposition batters we haven’t played a lot against and some of them are just starting out their Test careers. It’s always a sense of trying to get your head around a little bit of what they do. And then obviously, once you’re out there trying to adapt on the fly.”

The golf clubs have been put away. Another challenge with a fair few unknowns awaits for Australia and they will not want to slip up again.

Alex Malcolm is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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