New Zealand battled hard on day three as Australia inched closer to victory in Wellington . Even allowing for New Zealand’s renowned reputation for punching above their weight and finding a way of resolving seemingly insurmountable obstacles, it will take a climb of Hillary-esque proportions to recover from the position they find themselves in the first Test.
The bald scoreline of 4-178 – still more than 200 runs in deficit with a couple of sun-soaked days to play – would be daunting enough.
But the dual loss in the final session of the two batsmen who were most likely to have led the rearguard movement if such an effort could be found – soon-to-be-retired skipper Brendon McCullum and his replacement-in-waiting Kane Williamson – has lent the match an air of inevitability.
McCullum, who two years ago saved the Black Caps from a similarly desolate Test match scenario by scoring his nation’s first (and thus far only) triple century, was given out lbw to Mitchell Marsh from what turned out to be the final delivery of day three.
With 10 runs and an unsuccessful review – which upheld umpire Richard Kettleborough’s adjudication that the ball was going to hit leg stump – against his name in his final Test at the ground with which he will be forever linked.
Although, in his twilight appearances, a similar-sized rescue mission was always going to be beyond the combative captain.
Having ceded Australia a 379-run first innings lead, a position of surplus from which no team in almost 140 years has lost a Test, the chances of the Black Caps finding a way to win this match would seem negligible.
But now that responsibility will wrest with Test debutant Henry Nicholls (31no), all-rounder Corey Anderson (highest Test score 116) and wicketkeeper B J Watling (who was involved in an epic game-changing partnership at the Basin with Williamson a year ago).
And the specialist bowlers who follow them.
The game effectively slipped from the already loosened grasp of the home team in the opening hour of the third day when Adam Voges marched on to his second double-century in four Tests, and he was able to add a further 31 runs – and considerably more pain – with specialist bowler Peter Siddle.
That partnership took care of any hopes the Black Caps held of wrapping up Australia’s innings in a hurry and limiting their lead to sub-300.
Not only did Voges find valuable support from Siddle (49), but other card-carrying tailenders Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood and Jackson Bird hung about for a combined stay of more than an hour that carried Australia to the brink of lunch.
On a pitch that has flattened to the point that the Wellington ground is more of a dinner plate than a Basin, but with the occasional delivery holding up on the pitch which explained the record-equalling four caught and bowled dismissals in Australia’s innings of 562, the battle for NZ loomed as more mental than technical.
Having seen the batsman who should have been dismissed for seven late on the first day, but was reprieved by an umpiring howler and kept batting for a further five and a half hours and 232 runs, the size of the climb confronting them when they got underway this afternoon was daunting.
Even for a nation known for its love of a challenge and defying popular perception.
The questions over Martin Guptill’s suitability were again raised when the all-or-nothing opener decided his ODI mode of attack was the best approach to a Test salvage job and he holed out for 45 off 55 balls.
In fairness, it took a special catch to hand Australia a breakthrough after an hour of toil as Mitchell Marsh showed the benefits of the additional fielding drills the Australians undertook prior to this Test by expertly judging and holding a skied chance coming over his shoulder as he circled back from extra cover.
But the wicket that Australia most keenly sought was a further hour and more away and, when it landed, the look of quiet exultation on Josh Hazlewood’s face when he had Kane Williamson caught behind for 22 told its own story