In the early eleventh century, Canute the Great was king of the North Sea empire, a short-lived empire that encompassed modern-day Denmark as well as most of England and Norway, and parts of Scotland, Sweden and Germany. He was an effective ruler, who established a large empire and, especially given the difficulty of travel and communications in his era, governed it generally well.
However, Canute is widely known for a particular tale: his battle with the rising tide.
In the Norse religion, the king was divine and had power over the elements. Canute decided to put that theory to the test. He famously put his throne on the beach, and ordered the tide to not come in and touch him.
The New Zealand team arrived in Australia full of hope. They were being lauded as New Zealand's greatest-ever side. This was a true opportunity to put that to the test against the relentless Australian side.
One of the key reputations that New Zealand had established was an ability to be patient with the bat, and wear out the opposition bowlers.
However, it was Australia who showed the most patience.
Australia started off defending anything full and straight, and leaving anything with an element of danger. At the second drinks break in every match (half-way through the first day) Australia had scored less than 125 runs but had only lost two wickets. At the equivalent point in the first two matches, New Zealand had more runs, but had lost seven and six wickets respectively. In the third match, New Zealand showed more patience, but by then the series was already over.
Australia was able to keep defending and keep waiting for longer. That was helped by their batsmen being fresher from not having had to spend hours in the field. But New Zealand only had to spend so long in the field because Australia was so patient.
The water rose and rose. Canute commanded it to stop. His normally flattering courtiers started to mutter amongst themselves.
Another thing that New Zealand arrived in Australia with was a reputation for clever bowling plans. However, Australia showed them up here too.
Australia's quick bowlers targeted the stumps more often than New Zealand's. For most of the match, New Zealand’s quick bowlers either bowled on a 4th stump line, or bowled short. As a result, the batsmen could decide which to play, with limited risk. Australia bowled at the stumps much more, and, while that did not result in a huge difference in the number of bowled or lbw decisions, it did result in a lot of batsmen getting caught behind the wicket, indecisive about whether they should be playing the ball or not.
Some of that was due to the regular dismissals. Australia tend to target the stumps of batsmen who are new to the crease, and, given that only five New Zealand batsmen made it past 50, almost every delivery was bowled to someone who had only recently arrived. New Zealand was much faster to switch to a wider attack, and often started with it from ball one. As an example, when Travis Head came to the crease at the MCG, his first 10 balls were so wide that they would have possibly missed a second set of stumps. He was given almost two full overs to get a feel for the pace of the pitch before having to actually play a ball. Batsmen are at their most vulnerable when they first come to the crease. Giving them a free pass is not sensible bowling.
The water continued to rise. It started lapping at Canute's feet. Onlookers were starting to think that perhaps the king was not as powerful as they had previously thought.
New Zealand had built its reputation based on being solid at home and also beating Pakistan in UAE and sharing a series with Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka.
Their batsmen had shown a strength against spin that made New Zealand stand out from Australia, South Africa and England. However, they had few answers against Nathan Lyon and Marnus Labuschagne, while the Australian batsmen feasted on the New Zealand spinners.
When the New Zealand pace bowlers had a rest, so did the Australian batsmen. Mitchell Santner did not create the pressure required, and that short break in pressure allowed them to bat with more freedom. In the third match, where Santner was out with illness, Will Somerville picked up where Santner left off, giving too many easy deliveries to the batsmen. Todd Astle was the clear exception for New Zealand, creating some issues with his well-disguised wrong ‘un and getting the odd ball to turn sharply.
In Nathan Lyon, however, Australia have a weapon who can be relied upon to create pressure. He does not often bowl a bad ball, and is constantly attacking the batsman. When he was at the crease not only did New Zealand lose wickets regularly to him, they also often lost them at the other end. Mental pressure causes more wickets than difficult pitches ever do. The odd ball that bounces higher than expected, or that turns more (or less) than expected causes the batsman to become hesitant, and that is when the wrong shots start to get played.
While Astle did manage to bowl some very good balls that caused some issues, he still bowled more bad ones than Lyon, and that resulted in less pressure being exerted. However, the scoreboard situation also contributed to that lack of pressure. It is much, much easier to bat when your team is 300 runs ahead than when you are 300 behind. It should not be any different, but it really is.
Lyon ended the series with the most wickets at the best average. He was not the only difference between the sides, but he was a significant difference. All three of New Zealand’s frontline spin bowlers averaged over 50. Lyon averaged 17.25.
The tide did not stop for Canute. He was left carrying his own wet throne back up the beach out of the water, having demonstrated that he was not as powerful as legend would suggest.
Australia exposed New Zealand's weaknesses. The New Zealand team are left to head back across the Tasman with their reputation in tatters. Nobody will be calling them New Zealand's greatest-ever side now.
Australia only had the opportunity to take the new ball once. New Zealand was within 20 overs of a third new ball on each innings where Australia didn't declare. Australia had the opportunity to enforce the follow-on in every match and won all three by more than 200 runs.
New Zealand were forced to field on all 12 days, and never managed to take a match into the final day.
In the aftermath of the tide incident, King Canute hung up his crown, never to wear it again.
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