MELBOURNE (Reuters) - New captain Steven Smith faces a baptism of fire on Thursday as he leads a rebuilding Australia into the first test of a home summer against New Zealand opponents sensing an upset.
Australia have not lost a test at their Gabba fortress in 27 years but have rarely appeared more vulnerable with the string of retirements that followed the Ashes defeat in England.
As a stand-in skipper, Smith led Australia to a series win over India in the last home summer but the 26-year-old has since lost a wealth of experience, with predecessor Michael Clarke, paceman Ryan Harris and opening batsman Chris Rogers among the departed.
A batting order that performed woefully for large parts of the 3-2 Ashes loss now includes only Smith and his deputy David Warner as players with 10 tests to their name.
Much will be asked of two-test Queenslander Joe Burns who replaces the dependable Rogers for at least the first two tests of the series.
With Warner, Rogers formed one of cricket’s most effective opening partnerships in recent years, so Burns will be under pressure to hold up his end in front of fans in his home state.
Also under heavy scrutiny, Queensland captain Usman Khawaja has been thrown in the deep end to bat third in the order for his first test in over two years.
He replaces Smith who has demoted himself to fourth but flourished at number three for most of the past two years.
The move seems curiously defensive and likely to give Brendon McCullum’s bowlers added conviction that their opponents are ripe for the picking.
“If there’s a run of wickets hopefully I can stop it,” Smith said in comments published on Tuesday by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.
”I think a lot of the players that are coming through at the moment are top-order players.
“It’s just the way I see it at the moment. Breaking it up between Davey and myself and hopefully the guys at the top and No.3 do well and then I can just come in and get some runs on the board as well.”
McCullum’s side is far more settled and relishing a rare chance to face off with a quality opponent in a three-test series that travels to Perth and Adelaide.
The Gabba has proved a graveyard for most visiting teams and New Zealand’s sole win at the ground was 30 years ago when a marauding Richard Hadlee destroyed Allan Border’s team with 15 wickets, including an astonishing 9-52 in the first innings.
That set the tone for New Zealand’s last series win in Australia, so McCullum will hope for a Hadlee-esque performance from either Trent Boult or fellow seamer Tim Southee to knock over the hosts on their favourite home wicket.
With the Gabba pitch tipped to be dependably quick and bouncy, and both sides boasting dynamic fast bowlers, the match may well be decided by which side’s batsmen can better weather the storm.
With the tourists boasting the more settled batting order, McCullum’s men may feel themselves well positioned for a raid on the Gabba fortress.
Editing by Ian Ransom; Editing by Patrick Johnston