All the MCC wants for Christmas is a Boxing Day Test pitch that provides a contest between bat and ball, but what has curator Santa provided?
After the Sheffield Shield pitch debacle three weeks ago when a match was abandoned because the pitch was overcooked and dangerous, selection for the Second Test offers a test of nerves before a ball has been bowled.
Australian skipper Tim Paine clearly wants to get a look at what’s under the tree, putting off naming his final team until inspecting the pitch on Thursday morning.
It’s tipped that Queensland paceman Michael Neser could be handed his Test debut, with the home side potentially playing five bowlers and vice-skipper Travis Head being the unlucky omission.
New Zealand has gone all in, confirming Tom Blundell will replace struggling opener Jeet Raval at the top of the order and paceman Trent Boult recovering from a rib injury to replace Lockie Ferguson.
Victorian fast bowler James Pattinson will almost certainly replace the injured Josh Hazlewood.
Paine admits that the lifelessness of the MCG pitch in recent years, followed by the recent Shield experience, has him keen to keep his options open until the last moment.
“Looking at the wicket in the last two or three Boxing Day Test matches, it’s been very hard to take 20 wickets,” Paine told reporters on Wednesday.
Our batting team has been scoring a lot of runs so if we were to go one more bowler, we would be comfortable they could do the job.
“The bowlers we would be bringing in can all bat so while we’re taking a batter out, we’re probably lengthening our line-up.”
If Head made way, Paine would bat up the order at No.6.
Neser has a first-class batting average of 25.13 and scored a domestic one-day century in 2017.
He also has 167 first-class wickets at an average of 26.15 from 52 matches.
Paine said it would be a “nice problem” juggling four quicks and off-spinner Nathan Lyon, although Australia has rarely played five genuine bowlers.
“It would be better than the (problem) I had in Perth, that’s for sure,” Paine said.
Australian opener David Warner has been declared a certain starter after a thumb-injury scare in the nets earlier in the week.
He trained on Wednesday morning and showed no sign of any difficulties.
New Zealand is keen to even up the series in its first Test at the MCG for 32 years.
The Black Caps’ last Boxing Day Test back in 1987 resulted in a famous draw.
“There’s a sense of romance about being involved in the Boxing Day Test,” captain Kane Williamson told reporters on Wednesday.
“I know we always play cricket on Boxing Day, but I think there’s only one Boxing Day Test and it’s the one over here.
“At the same time, it’s sort of removing a little bit of that (hype) and bringing the focus back to the cricket.
“Perth was tough and Australia were very good and tactically sound. It’s important we learn from some bits of Perth.”
Williamson labelled Blundell a “smart” and “positive” player capable of rising to the occasion.
Blundell played the last of his two Tests in December 2017 and batted at No.8.
“It’s important you adapt to the conditions in front of you and important he goes out and looks to play his natural game,” Williamson said.
AUSTRALIA’S BOXING DAY TEST HISTORY
Australia’s overall record at MCG: Won: 63. Lost: 31. Drawn: 17
Australia has an impressive record in Melbourne, but it lost the Boxing Day Test in 2018. India claimed its first win at the MCG since 1981, defeating Australia by 137 runs to secure the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Biggest Boxing Day Test win: Australia romped to victory by an innings and 201 runs within three days against Sri Lanka in 2012 after Mitchell Johnson’s all-round heroics. The left-arm quick helped the hosts rout the visitors for 156 in their first dig with figures of 4-63. He then thrashed an unbeaten 92 as Australia responded with 460, led by skipper Michael Clarke’s 106. With two injured tailenders unable to bat, Sri Lanka only managed 103 from 24.2 overs.
Biggest Boxing Day Test loss: England won the fourth Test in 2010 by an innings and 157 runs within four days. Australia was skittled for 98 in the first innings by an English attack without the rested Steve Finn, the series’ leading wicket taker. The visitors showed there were no gremlins in the wicket by piling on 513, led by Jonathan Trott’s unbeaten 168. Despite resistance from Brad Haddin (55 not out) the hosts were bowled out for 258.
Highest score in Boxing Day Test: Moustachioed Australian left-hander Graham Yallop hit 268 against Pakistan in the 1983 MCG clash, hitting 29 fours in a marathon 517-ball knock that lasted almost 12 hours. The match ended in a draw with more than 1200 runs scored in just three innings.
Best bowling in Boxing Day Test: Australian spearhead Graham McKenzie took career-best figures of 8-71 against the West Indies in 1968 to help dismiss the visitors for 200 in their first dig. Australia went on to win by an innings and 30 runs. The best match figures are 13-145 by towering Australian left-arm quick Bruce Reid in an eight-wicket win over England in 1990.