Marnus Labuschagne scored his fourth century in five Tests as Australia dominated the Sydney Test against New Zealand. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
The New Year Test in Sydney is always considered one of the marquee events in the cricketing calendar that sets the tone for the year. However, in the new decade, this Test in Sydney was secondary compared to the broader scheme of things. Australia is battling the worst bushfires in history and there was a cloud hanging over how things would pan out at the Sydney Cricket Ground. However, Marnus Labuschagne dispelled the gloom with a magnificent century, his fourth in the last five Tests and a grinding fifty from Steve Smith helped Australia establish their dominance and end day 1 on 283/3 against New Zealand.
Both sides wore armbands as a mark of tribute to the firefighters and people who were killed in the bushfire that has seen New South Wales declare a state of emergency and ordered mass relocations. Before the match, the first jolt for New Zealand was losing Kane Williamson due to flu and Tom Latham was made the captain. Australia chose to bat and they fielded an unchanged side while the Kiwis made five changes, bringing in spinners Will Sommerville and Todd Astle and bringing in Matt Henry in place of Tim Southee. Glenn Phillips was handed a debut while Jeet Raval replaced Henry Nicholls, who was also down with flu.
On a flat wicket, Australia built the momentum with David Warner and Joe Burns scoring boundaries and maintaining a scoring rate of close to four runs an over. However, at the stroke of the drinks break, Colin de Grandhomme got the wicket of Burns with an away-swinger that squared up the batsman and he edged it to slip. That brought in Labuschagne and right from the beginning, the right-hander showed the application for a big score.
New Zealand did not help themselves by bowling too many deliveries on the leg side to Labuschagne and he ensured he made them pay by scoring boundaries at will. Australia went into the lunch break in a strong position but New Zealand struck in style when Warner, on 45, fell to the leg side trap by miscuing a short ball to leg gully where de Grandhomme took the catch. Steve Smith came in and he was face-to-face with Wagner, who had dismissed him in all four innings so far. The next one hour saw a contrast in batsmanship. While Labuschagne made smooth progress, Smith did not get off the mark for 38 balls and was stranded for 45 minutes on 0. However, the 39th ball saw Smith hop and tuck a short ball from Wagner to the square leg region for a quick single.
When Smith opened up his account, the Sydney Cricket Ground gave him a rousing reception and Wagner also congratulated him in a funny way. Labuschagne notched up his fifty with a drive through deep cover off Sommerville and Smith gained in confidence with boundaries. Both Smith and Labuschagne made the New Zealand bowlers toil as the visitors found no assistance from the placid pitch. At the tea break, Labuschagne said the wicket was slow and one had to get his eye in. After the tea break, Labuschagne made smooth progress past the eighties and the nineties and it was a race between Smith's fifty and Labuschagne's hundred.
Smith reached his fifty with a push to point off de Grandhomme and a couple of overs later, Labuschagne glanced the same bowler to the fine leg fence to become the first batsman in the new decade to smash a century. The second new ball was taken and Labuschagne scored some quick runs as Smith got ready to pile on the big runs. However, de Grandhomme struck again as Smith poked at a wide delivery to be caught at slip for 63.
The final few overs saw an intense battle between Wagner and Matthew Wade. The bowler bowled short and Wade was not tempted to back out. The left-hander smashed two boundaries and a six off Wagner to signal his intentions while Labuschagne ensured that Australia would be in a solid position. The bushfires may have taken the sheen off the Pink Test in Sydney, but Labuschagne exploits have shown that cricket can be a great healer. All eyes will be on Saturday where the weather is expected to deteriorate.