On the field, the Australian team has given its public good reasons to watch. Winning games is one thing, but the realisation is growing that this Test team has some once-in-a-generation talent that will be spoken of in the same way as heroes of the past.
After his peerless deeds in the Ashes series, Steve Smith has added a dose of uncertainty to his appearances. Where centuries seemed inevitable in England, Smith has not made one since coming home. His highest score, 85 in Melbourne, was laboured.
He has been on the losing end of a duel with New Zealand left-armer Neil Wagner and his short-pitched “Bodylite” attack. Crowds will be hoping, not expecting, for Smith to play a grand innings. It’s a different kind of theatre, where the outcome is unknown, and the lack of predictability of Smith’s output this summer will increase his box office appeal.
From a cricket point of view, it is the Australian fast-bowling battery that gives fans a reason to feel they are witnessing something truly special.
For almost a decade, injuries have held this group back. Even now, one of the fab four – Josh Hazlewood – is resting a bung hamstring. This has at least spared selectors the pressure to leave one out.
Pat Cummins, after missing six years of international cricket, has established himself as the No.1 bowler in the world. The matinee idol looks, the maturity and the good-citizen solidity make Cummins a chief target of the “Marry Me” posters. For the purist, Cummins is remarkable for his consistent accuracy at very high pace. He makes batting, for even the best in the world, a nightmare. They can bat all day against Cummins and never receive a ball that does not challenge them in some way. He never lets up, bowling as if he spent six years storing up a career’s worth of persistence, vowing, when he finally got his chance, to treat every performance as if it is his last.
If Australia has made the results of this summer’s Test matches predictable, it owes to Cummins’ partnership with Mitchell Starc. The left-armer, with a reformed action and the hardening experience of being left out of all but one of the Ashes Tests, is the fastest and most potent of the Australian pace attack.
To cricket newcomers, Starc’s height, speed and awkward angle make him an arresting sight. Test cricket is a game where nothing happens, and then everything happens at once. When the latter mood change comes over a game, usually Starc is the cause.
For those who love cricket’s most beautiful art, fast right-arm outswing bowling, Victoria’s James Pattinson is their man. Pattinson was long tipped to be the foremost of the four, but has had the most stop-start career due to injury. At his best, he is the best. His delivery to dismiss Kiwi Bradley Watling in the first innings in Melbourne was something to warm the cockles of those raised on Dennis Lillee and Sir Richard Hadlee: classic right-arm outswing, perfect wrist position, poetry.
For all the talk about off-field values, it is cricket that has rescued Australian cricket. The batting of Smith, Marnus Labuschagne, David Warner and their mates, the steadiness of captain Tim Paine and the GOAT Nathan Lyon, and most of all the fast bowling, have turned this Test team into a force. Sydney has another dead rubber, true. The state is aflame. But when Australia’s fast bowlers go to work, there is a chance to pause and appreciate the skills of this game at their finest.
Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.