By Niall Anderson in Melbourne
Two of the least fancied batsmen in the Australian lineup have put the Black Caps to the sword on day two of the second test in Melbourne.
Travis Head and Tim Paine emphatically denied the Black Caps at the MCG, with a 150-run stand eliminating the slim chance New Zealand had to grab a foothold in the test.
• Boxing Day battle: Australia get lucky v Black Caps
• ‘I just don’t understand’: McCullum slams Williamson’s ‘staggering’ blunder
• Ultimate humiliation’: Williamson’s brutal message to Black Cap
• As it happened: Black Caps v Australia, day two
The Black Caps had battled hard early in the second day, restricting Australia’s run rate and claiming the significant scalp of Steve Smith, but coming together at 284-5, Head and Paine’s partnership realistically removed the Black Caps’ chances of victory.
Frustratingly, the Black Caps may be left feeling they were just one wicket away. Compared to the likes of Smith, David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne, Head and Paine would have been more realistic scalps to claim early in their innings, with the pair having a combined one test century going into this encounter.
Now they have two, after Head made a classy 114, while Paine’s performance was arguably the most vital of the day, making an aggressive 79 to rapidly increase Australia’s scoring rate, and guide them to an excellent total of 467.
The Black Caps were possibly left wondering what could have been when they took the last five wickets for 33 runs — albeit thanks to some lower-order slogging — but their chances of victory would have been slim regardless, based on the fiery bowling from the Australian pace attack.
Mitchell Starc hit 150km/h on several occasions as he launched down some thunderbolts, and while rookie opener Tom Blundell dealt well with his offerings, he couldn’t do the same to the nearly-as-rapid Pat Cummins, who drew an edge, and ended Blundell’s promising start on 15.
Blundell’s cameo was more than Kane Williamson offered, with the skipper mistiming a pull from James Pattinson and skying a catch to Paine to depart for nine, as the Black Caps scraped their way to 44-2 at stumps.
It wasn’t a great day for Williamson, who was criticised for passive captaincy decisions when the Black Caps were in the field, which included giving Blundell a three-over cameo with the ball as he lost faith in the bowling of Mitchell Santner (0-82 from 20 overs).
Yet again, Neil Wagner was New Zealand’s spearhead, finishing with 4-83, and he had given the visitors early reasons for hope with the dismissal of Smith for 85, firing in a brutal bouncer which Smith could only fend into the gully, where Henry Nicholls took a brilliant back-handed fingertip catch.
Head survived an inside edge and a near run-out as the wicket briefly revitalised the Black Caps, but a poor spell from Santner released the pressure, and with Paine pulling with glee, the pair quickly piled on the runs.
A session went by without a wicket as the duo plundered, and after nearly 44 overs of toil, Wagner finally broke through, successfully reviewing an lbw appeal to dismiss Paine. Head brought up a deserved hundred before departing 14 runs later to Wagner, while Tim Southee ended up with three wickets as the Australian tail went down in a blaze of slogging.
The damage had been done though, and the Black Caps’ prospects sunk further before stumps. Blundell offered more than the replaced Jeet Raval but got a good ball from Cummins, and while Tom Latham battled to reach stumps on nine off 57 balls, he lost Williamson before the close of play.
Ross Taylor was nearly sent back to the pavilion as well, given out lbw to Pattinson for one, but successfully reviewed the decision to barely survive until stumps.
Also clinging to survival are the Black Caps’ chances of avoiding a series defeat, and it will take an almighty batting effort tomorrow to keep their hopes alive.