Boxing Day is easily the greatest day of the year. A kitchen full of cold cuts, coleslaw, beer and all the other detritus of the day before. The relatives have all buggered back off to wherever it is they come from, not to be seen for another glorious 364 days. A brand new WiiU to play with if you are lucky, a Playstation 3 if you’re not. And there is sport on the telly. All day, glorious, glorious sport. So much sport it’s safe to ignore that rubbish T20 game that will be played in South Africa.
In Australia the day is synonymous with the Boxing Day Test, where any half serious cricket follower in Victoria heads out to the MCG, where it usually rains for at least half the day. The fact that nobody bothers to back up days two through to five is usually glossed over. In fact it wouldn’t surprise us, especially given the size of the Sri Lankan expatriate community in Melbourne, if the hosts are severely outnumbered in the crowd for the majority of this Test.
But putting such minor quibbles aside, the Boxing Day Test is usually great entertainment, particularly since the MCG pitch is a pretty decent deck these days. Not the like the roads that have sprung up elsewhere around the country. Everyone will be in with a chance of influencing the contest: batsmen, quicks, spinners, Shane Watson. It should, in theory, be a cracking Test match. If it actually is or not largely depends on Sri Lanka.
The Hobart Test is not one that will linger long in the memory. But it may in future prove to be one of the defining moments of this current Australian Test team’s efforts to rebuild itself. A draw in that Test, which was by far the most likely scenario heading into the last session, would have left the team on a precipice. Battered by injuries, there would have been a chance that Sri Lanka could have drawn, or even won, the series from that position. Which would have left the team at a supremely low ebb ahead of tours to India and England. But Australia won, and it’s now difficult to conceive of another outcome than a series victory to Australia, setting them up nicely for the challenges ahead.
Which is just as well, considering their figurehead, in more ways than one, Michael Clarke, might be missing from this Test. If he is absent, Usman Khawaja will make a return, and Shane Watson will be the interim captain. Which sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, but could turn out to be a master-stroke, because if being made captain isn’t enough to kick Watson out of his recent moribund form, nothing is. Khawaja’s domestic form has been just about good enough to warrant a Test reprieve and, much like Phil Hughes in Hobart, he couldn’t hope for a weaker attack to make his return against.
The other selection dilemma surrounded who will replace Ben Hilfenhaus: Mitchell Johnson or Jackson Bird. That is it did till Chairman of Selectors, John Inverarity, announced that Mitchell Starc would probably be rested instead, and so both of them will play. A pretty smart decision really, since playing an Australian fast bowler for more than two Tests in a row is just asking for trouble. And it also makes us happy because that means Bird will get to play, and he is bloody awesome.
It’s harder to know what to say about the tourists. If all the pieces come together they’re capable of really making a game of it; Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara especially need to score big, with Tillakaratne Dilshan and Angelo Mathews also needing to continue to contribute as well. But even if the Sri Lankans can put the runs on the board, the suspicion is that their attack won’t be able to match the batsmen’s good work. At best the Sri Lankan attack seems to aim to contain the opposition, stifling run scoring opportunities. It’s all very reminiscent of ODI tactics, and whilst (if executed well) it can keep the tourists in the game, it’s not really going to win them many matches.
Shaminda Eranga looks the wild card in the Sri Lankan attack, the one bowler with enough pace to actually unsettle the opposition batsmen. The rest will be hoping the Australians throw their wickets away as they usually do. Ranagana Herath will be usual self, trudging around in the outfield wondering when he will be fed next and taking the usual inexplicable bagful of wickets. But since the wicket will hardly turn square, Sri Lanka will have a tough time removing anyone who bats with any intent at all. And by anyone, we mean Michael Hussey.
Still, Sri Lanka have the ability to take the game to the hosts. They haven’t exactly embarrassed themselves in the field thus far, and the support they receive throughout may count for something. We just recommend polishing off all those cold cuts quickly, that’s all. Because by day four you might be wanting something else to amuse yourself with. Other than a trip to the local hospital with salmonella poisoning, that is.
The hope is that this will prove a closely fought match that will not only go down to the wire like the previous Test, but also offer both sides an equal chance of victory. The reality is that Sri Lanka are going to get absolutely battered.
Australia to win by an innings and Bird to take ten wickets.