Big Brother makes rare trip across the Tasman for high-stakes contest

The importance of Kane Williamson to New Zealand (2:20)

Ahead of the New Zealand-Australia Test Series, the Around the Wicket team had nothing but praise for Kane Williamson. (2:20)

Eight years is a long time in anyone's language, let alone between Test tours. Given it is an Olympic Games year, the last time Australia made a Test tour to New Zealand was two Olympiads ago in 2016, when Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps were still competing.

New Zealand's captain for that series, Brendon McCullum, is now England's coach. Australia's captain and No. 4 in 2016, Steven Smith, is now the vice-captain and the opener. His current opening partner, Usman Khawaja, was Australia's No. 3 in 2016, having never opened the batting in Test cricket at that point. He is now statistically one of the most successful openers of all time, having been dropped and recalled by Australia four times in the last eight years.

It was so long ago that New Zealand's then-allrounder Corey Anderson has had time to qualify for the USA, while Australia's double-centurion in Wellington in 2016, Adam Voges, has just won his seventh domestic trophy as a coach with Western Australia and Perth Scorchers.

Australia have toured India, England, and Sri Lanka twice in the intervening years and have visited South Africa, Bangladesh and Pakistan once each. Despite it being a three-hour flight from Australia's east coast compared to a nearly 24-hour journey from the UK, England have made three separate Test tours to New Zealand to Australia's zero.

Such is the infrequency of Australia's Test tours to their closest neighbours, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, who both debuted in 2011 and have played a combined total of 147 matches, have never played a Test match in New Zealand.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. New Zealand cricket hearts are bursting at the sight of baggy greens on their shores, with Wellington sold out weeks in advance.

New Zealand's prime minister Christopher Luxon spoke gushingly of Cummins' leadership at a reception at Premier House in Wellington on Monday night, saying he had pinched the Australia captain's mantra of "calm and consistent" and used it with his MPs during his election campaign last year.

That anecdote speaks to the relationship New Zealand has with Australian cricket.

Beyond just the rare nature of the duel, there is plenty at stake over the next two weeks and, as ever, it is a shame the series will only feature two Tests. These two sides are the most recent and only two Test world champions. New Zealand currently lead the WTC table with Australia sitting third. The huge discrepancy in matches played - New Zealand's four to Australia's ten - further illustrates the current global cricket landscape.

And while this two-Test series does appear to have been shoehorned into a small two-week window at the end of long home summers and just prior to the IPL, there is much to play for and much to prove for both sides.

New Zealand are the WTC leaders and the 2021 WTC champions, and yet whenever Big Brother invites them to play, they not only forget to punch above their weight as they consistently do elsewhere, they often forget to throw a punch at all.

New Zealand have won one Test against Australia since 1993, in Hobart in 2011. In ten Tests at home this century, they have lost nine and were saved by rain in the tenth.

Despite having a generation of great players, led by captain Tim Southee and their greatest ever batter in Kane Williamson, both of whom will celebrate their 100th Tests in Christchurch, Australia have had a stranglehold over the Black Caps.

Even in the microcosm of the recent T20I series, New Zealand played some exceptional cricket in patches and had Australia on the ropes several times, only to let them off the hook with dropped catches and poor execution.

If the mental stranglehold isn't a big enough issue, an ill-timed spate of injury concerns has added to the self-doubt. Devon Conway's thumb is a major problem, with the opener, coach Gary Stead and the team physio meeting on Monday to discuss whether he could hold a bat. Kyle Jamieson is already out of the series, while Rachin Ravindra (quad) and Daryl Mitchell (foot) are carrying niggles, although the latter is confident he will be fine.

Mitchell looms as New Zealand's key man. Having cut his teeth in Western Australian grade cricket as a youngster, he knows that beating Australia is about nothing more than executing in the moment as you would with any other team.

"For us, it's not making that bigger than what it is," Mitchell said on Monday. "It's cool to take on the Aussies... it's going to be pretty special in front of a packed Basin [Reserve] and Aussie are a world-class team.

"It's obviously a special series for everyone but at the same time, it's just another ball coming down at you and trying to find a way to negate it."

The blueprint is there, and it came in the form of West Indies' Shamar Joseph at the Gabba. West Indies had an equally poor record against Australia coming into the most recent series, and the debutant showed that the reigning world champions are far from impregnable.

Australia come to New Zealand with a settled side. The XI for the first Test is set to be the same as they fielded in the two Tests against West Indies. That team had only one change from the side that beat Pakistan 3-0, with Cameron Green replacing the retiring David Warner in a reshuffled batting order.

It was Australia's batting eight years ago that underpinned their 2-0 victory, making more than 500 in their first innings of both wins. Australia's current batting group did not pass 500 once in 16 Tests in 2023 and has only passed 400 once in their last eight Test matches. They scored 400 or more in all three Tests against New Zealand in the 2019-20 series sweep in Australia.

Eight years was a long time to wait for the Black Caps after failing to seize their chance in McCullum's farewell. The next wait might be interminable if they fail to do so again.