For Steven Smith, it’s all about winning on the road.
He said it in England, he said it before Australia’s dominant home summer, he said it afterwards, and he said it on arrival in New Zealand.
He wrote in his column, one his “main goals as captain is to play better and win away from our own backyard… We need to be able to play just as well in Chittagong or Edgbaston as we do in Perth or Melbourne.”
Or Wellington. He told Radio Sport NZ on Thursday (February 11), the day before the first Test against New Zealand, “I want to make sure we play well abroad, and that starts tomorrow at the Basin.”
That’s why Smith was so upset at losing the preceding One-Day International series 2-1, ceding a chance to reclaim the Chappell-Hadlee trophy.
He was fuming on the boundary when Mitchell Marsh was controversially given out at a key moment in Australia’s run chase, when a caught-and-bowled bouncing up off his boot was given not out before a replay on the ground’s big screen prompted the umpires to call for a review.
Debate that all you will: the batsman was out and should have been given. But Smith’s frustration was less about the purity of umpiring process, and more about seeing a winning position overseas slip away.
All those emotions will spill over into the Test series, as will Australia’s nerves about surviving against the moving ball, as they face a swing attack on a green surface.
For the home side, there’s the emotion around Brendon McCullum’s farewell tour. It has been a protracted one: first his final match in Auckland, then to Hamilton for his final ODI, now his hundredth Test match in Wellington, before his farewell to international cricket entirely in the Christchurch Test.
With lingering annoyance after Nathan Lyon’s DRS fiasco in Adelaide last November cost New Zealand a Test win and a drawn series, the Black Caps have extra incentive to crave the return series win that would send their captain off in style.
So, two teams will match up, each with something they are desperate to achieve on the line. The arena on which they will meet will provide the talking points. The Basin Reserve, the world’s largest roundabout, and one of the most picturesque grounds in world cricket.
Lengthy grassed banks, the high-peaked roofs of the R.A. Vance stand, the New Zealand cricket museum in the pavilion, the flags of the ten Test nations in the breeze, the shady trees around the perimeter, and the eagle eyrie commentary boxes in the rafters, all lazing in the atypical sunshine of Wellington’s brief summer.
But in the middle, a pitch that has been hidden under hessian (not to be confused with Kiwi coach Mike Hesson). The day before the match saw cover rolled back just enough for a teasing glimpse, like a cabaret dancer showing a bit of leg.
A photograph emerged showing Smith, David Warner and Nathan Lyon on the lush surface, dressed in whites, all on various configurations of all fours, expecting the pitch up close like keen lawn bowlers reading the slope.
As with most green pitches, locals warn not to get carried away. The hue can be illusory. Like former cricketers in baldness commercials, the surface beneath matters more than the decoration planted on top.
This pitch is hard, apparently offering lift and carry, making it a decent place to bat after some early application. Australia made 570 for 8 declared here in 2005 batting first.
There are few surprises with the teams, New Zealand bringing in debutant Henry Nicholls at No.4 to replace the injured Ross Taylor. Martin Guptill and Tom Latham will open, with Kane Williamson at three and McCullum at five.
Through the middle order, Corey Anderson, the allrounder, will bat ahead of BJ Watling, the wicketkeeper. Mark Craig, the offspinner, plays instead of the injured Mitchell Santner, with Doug Bracewell as a specialist bowler at nine ahead of Tim Southee and Trent Boult.
Including Anderson is an interesting choice, given Watling could have batted at six with the sturdy batting of Craig and Bracewell to follow, allowing New Zealand to bring in an extra quick, like left-armer Neil Wagner. But Anderson’s left-arm bowling has been preferred.
Australia will play their home summer batsmen: David Warner, Joe Burns, Usman Khawaja, Steven Smith and Adam Voges, with Mitchell Marsh likely to be as important with the ball as with the bat at number six.
Peter Nevill will keep, fresh from his surprise elevation to the World Twenty20 2016 squad. Peter Siddle and Josh Hazlewood will be expected to do the damage on the green pitch, with Nathan Lyon at the point in his career where he can’t be left out.
Only Jackson Bird is a surprise inclusion, preferred to the faster and more menacing James Pattinson, who so recently carved a swathe through West Indies.
The selectors have claimed they were worried Pattinson might not make it through a Test, even though he was pulled out of a first-class game halfway through in order to come over here.
But Bird is a specialist on seaming pitches, having done his apprenticeship in Hobart, and will add to the three Tests he has managed in a sporadic career that began at home against Sri Lanka and was last added to in the 2013 Ashes in Durham.
He’ll have one Test to make a case for a longer stay. In theory, the conditions couldn’t suit him any better. But only the greenest of cricketers would be unaware of how appearances can deceive.
New Zealand: Martin Guptill, Tom Latham, Kane Williamson, Henry Nicholls, Brendon McCullum (capt), Corey Anderson, BJ Watling (wk), Mark Craig, Doug Bracewell, Tim Southee, Trent Boult.
Australia: David Warner, Joe Burns, Usman Khawaja, Steven Smith (capt), Adam Voges, Mitchell Marsh, Peter Nevill (wk), Peter Siddle, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon, Jackson Bird.