Everybody loves a Boxing Day test match, it’s a time where Australians all over the country brave an early wakeup from their Christmas hangovers, grab the esky, fire up the barbeque and rejoice that the cricket has returned. It doesn’t matter whether you are listening to it on the radio in the car, watching it on television from you lounge room or trying to get ejected from the Great Southern Stand, the uniqueness and tradition of the Boxing Day Test depict the extraordinary significance of the occasion reflected through the electric atmosphere at the ‘G’. This is the highlight of the Australian cricketing calendar when the best eleven players from Australia step out onto the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, just as the games greats have done before them…
You might say that I’ve got it all wrong, that this test match means nothing now that the Ashes have been sewn up by Australia, sure you’re right, in the context of who is going to win the Ashes, this means nothing, but when Australia and England faceoff in a test match, there is rarely a ‘dead rubber’. The series may be over, but the Australians are bloodthirsty to avenge three straight series losses and will be looking to repeat the 2006/07 5-0 whitewash. On the other hand, the English and in particular the fanatical Barmy Army like to look at the bigger picture and claim that the Ashes is locked at 3-3 out of 10, hoping to fight back in Melbourne and Sydney for the pride of claiming the most wins overall. I can assure you that if this happens, we’ll all be hearing about this until the next series in 2015.
Last year Australia demolished Sri Lanka by an innings and 201 runs on a seaming MCG wicket that suited the fast bowlers if they could bowl in the right areas and get the ball to nip off the seam with the help of the unusually cool and overcast conditions. Evidently there were also runs to be made on the pitch if the bowlers got it wrong as Australia posted 460 in their first innings, punishing a depleted Sri Lankan attack. Likewise this year, the pitch in the days leading up to the test looks as though it is going to offer much of the same as it has that distinctively green tinge which lights up the eyes of fast bowlers and spinners alike, a great Christmas present indeed. The Melbourne drop-in pitches are consistently proving to be the best test match wickets in the world, allowing for a great battle between bat and ball as it looks as though this year is no different. Add to this the fact that the forecast for Melbourne indicates that we may see periods of overcast sky and it makes for an interesting test match to unfold.
Looking at England and what has unfolded over the past few days, it seems as though they may be having the same type of problems that Australia supposedly went through during their Indian tour in February with regards to a fractured team culture. From the experience of the Australian team, we know that it didn’t translate into performance on the cricket field and ultimately turned into a disastrous fiasco for Australian cricket. It’s evident if Graeme Swann has made statements on his departure from the team that there is a schism somewhere in the dressing room and this needs to be addressed if England are to return to playing their dominant style of cricket. Shane Warne was asked for a comment on the issue and he said that it can either go two ways for England, they can do nothing and disband in the dressing room, continuing to play poorly or they resolve the issues and unite as a team in an effort to improve results. I’ve been waiting all series for an English fight back, this is the most uncharacteristic performance we’ve ever seen from this group of players and I thought that they may have been able to pull it together finally after realising that the Ashes were gone, but if the Graeme Swann revelations are insinuating issues within the English camp, I find it hard to believe that they can put the demoralising Ashes loss behind them and fight back in Melbourne.
That being said, you still have to think that England cannot play as poorly as they have in the first three test matches given how much better Melbourne and Sydney suite them conditions wise. The English attack thrived in 2010 when they rattled Australia on Boxing Day with Anderson, Tremlett and Bresnan demolishing the Aussies for 98. The batting order then went onto post 513 as key players like Cook, Pietersen and Prior made meaningful contributions. Once again the story of the series so far for England has been the way that Australia have shut down and limited the output of the senior players in the side. England have found themselves behind after the first innings in each match because Ian Bell has been the only English batsman who has consistently put up a fight and made a few scores. If England are going to win, they need runs from Cook, Pietersen and Prior just as Australia have made a majority of their runs through Warner, Clarke and Haddin. When these key senior players make runs, ultimately the whole team gains confidence and plays to a higher level just like what we have seen from Australia, and what England did in the home Ashes series.
As for the English line-up, the top six will most likely remain the same despite the overwhelming consensus calling for Ian Bell to be moved up to number three in an attempt to play the best batsman in the anchoring role, avoiding the frequent middle order collapses which have plagued England this series. In regards to the question mark which has been hoisted over Matt Prior’s head, I wouldn’t be surprised if England selected Jonny Bairstow behind the stumps in an attempt to try something different, although I do think that this is unlikely before the end of the series unless Prior gets injured. The bowling attack should be made up of Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Tim Bresnan and Monty Panesar in place of the now retired Graeme Swann, however Broad may be a late exclusion for Chris Tremlett if his ankle restricts him during practice today.
In the Australian camp, its happy days, the Ashes have been won and it feels as though a great weight has been lifted off their shoulders as they have risen to success after hitting rock bottom earlier this year and vindicated three straight Ashes series losses. The team has reaped the benefits from consistency in selection which hasn’t been seen in Australia for years and now they are playing top quality cricket, taking the 50/50 chances and outclassing the English in all areas on the field. If there is any pressure at all, it is on Chris Rogers and George Bailey to make good scores in the final two tests to cement their places in the side. It’s hard to see either of them dropped after the team has performed so well this summer, however the tour of South Africa looms in February and players such as Phillip Hughes, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh and Alex Doolan continue to pile on the runs in the Sheffield Shield, continuing to ask questions of Rogers and Bailey if they fail to impress in the last two tests.
The only possible change for Australia is if Ryan Harris’ knee does not hold up before the start of the match. Harris has a history of injury issues and it has been well documented this series that his knees have not been at their best, however Harris is more likely to play than not, which will see him play his fourth consecutive test in a series for just the second time in his career. Doug Bollinger has been put on standby for Harris, edging out potential debutant Nathan Coulter-Nile who impressed in the Perth Scorchers loss to the Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash over the weekend. If Bollinger plays it will see another fast bowler’s career revived thanks to the long list of injuries to Australia’s young fast bowling stocks.
Overall, as I said before, I’ve been waiting for an English fight back and it hasn’t come yet. I am now leaning towards the line of thinking that it will never come as the team seems fragmented and demoralised from the way they were dominated on day 4 of the Perth test, and throughout the whole series so far for that matter. With this in mind, I think Australia should win this match given the way the bowling attack has worked as a unit and how the conditions will suit Ryan Harris in particular. However, if Anderson and the English bowling attack can also use the conditions well, this should be more even and closer a test match than we have seen this series.
By Tim Wray
Writer blogs at http://themaidenover.blogspot.com.au/