A year ago, 90,000 people crammed into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the Boxing Day Test to watch England destroy Australia in one of the greatest days there has ever been. This time around the Australians, currently on a mission to embarrass the nation as much as possible before the year is out, face India, themselves still smarting from their English summer.
As has become their custom, Australia have already named their side for the MGC, and it includes three changes from the one humbled by New Zealand a fortnight ago. Out go Phil Hughes, Usman Khawaja and Mitchell Starc, replaced by Ed Cowan, Shaun Marsh and Ben Hilfenhaus. Whilst we’re disappointed we won’t get to settle down in front of the TV on Christmas night to see Hughes edging to second slip before we’ve even got comfortable, the replacements aren’t exactly world-beaters themselves. Marsh is a talented young man who looks the most promising of this new generation, but Cowan is almost 30 and, let’s remember, was about fifth choice a month ago. Starc was poor against the Kiwis but Hilfenhaus looked like he’d have to sell his kidneys for a wicket last winter, and is also a plainly short-term solution. Just about the only positive they can take from this side is that it doesn’t include Dan Christian.
Normally we’d look at some players who need to perform this week but, quite frankly, we don’t have the time to do it for this lot. Suffice to say only Michael Clarke’s place is assured in the long run. They are up against an Indian side looking to reassert themselves after the debacle in England, which the Aussies will at least be able to relate to, and if their bowling attack is able to get into them early on in the series they should be competitive. With such a scattergun selection policy, a number of injuries and an entire side out of form, it’s difficult to see how they win the series.
What a difference a few months makes. The beaten and bedraggled side which left England in September suddenly looks a much fitter and stronger team. Whether that remains the case throughout their tour of Australia we’ll have to wait and see, but for now they look much more like the India which climbed to the top of the world than the one which was ruthlessly hurled off it earlier this year.
Praveen Kumar is injured and will play no part in the series, but the exciting Umesh Yadav will start in Melbourne alongside the two mainstays of the attack; Ishant Sharma and the returning Zaheer Khan. The batting line-up virtually picks itself, but with Yuvraj Singh recovering from the removal of a lung tumour it gives Virat Kohli an opportunity to nail down his place in the side. They cannot afford to lose as many wickets to the new ball as they did over the summer, if they dominate from the off they could inflict a telling psychological blow to their fragile opponents.
The first day, and the first session in particular, will be absolutely crucial. There is a sense that both teams need a strong start to settle into the game, and because of that both captains will probably be happy to bowl first, especially as the forecast indicates a bit of cloud around.
We can’t even decide amongst ourselves who will take this game, but this isn’t a democracy. India, but closer than it should be.