For the first time in 32 years, New Zealand will line up against Australia at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in a Boxing Day Test and the Kiwis are in a desperate battle to keep their series hopes alive.
After being comprehensively beaten by 296 runs in the first Test in Brisbane, Kane Williamson and his men cannot afford another loss in the three-match series against their Trans-tasman rivals.
The hosts, on the other hand, are buzzing after what has been a rewarding home summer so far and they will be desperate to sew up another Test series win after they crushed Pakistan emphatically at the start of the month.
MCG pitch in focus
The drop-in pitches at the MCG have been the focus of some debate over the last few years with results hard to come by. Picking up 20 wickets for any side has become a near improbable feat with the 2017 Ashes Test being one such prominent example. Such has been the lifeless nature of the Melbourne track that there have been increasing calls to move the traditional Boxing Day Test to other venues across Australia.
The growing criticism of the pitch has forced the hand of the curator and that in turn has led to even more problems. The recent Sheffield Shield clash between Victoria and Western Australia had to be abandoned abruptly after the pitch was deemed to be unplayable and too dangerous to bat on.
Finding the right balance between both extremes will be the toughest task for organisers and what will be the nature of the surface for the Boxing Day Test is anyone’s guess at the moment.
Kiwis get Trent boost
New Zealand were handicapped before the series even got under way after pace spearhead Trent Boult was ruled out of the first Test due to a rib injury. The visitors were subsequently forced to hand Lockie Ferguson a Test debut at the Gabba, and that move didn’t really pan out after the express pacer broke down with an injury after bowling just 11 overs.
While Ferguson has now been ruled out of the remainder of the series with a calf-strain, New Zealand have been handed a big boost with the news of Boult’s recovery. The left-armed pacer was dearly missed in Brisbane where Mitchell Starc ran riot with the pink ball, and his ability to generate prodigious movement could come in handy at Melbourne if the pitch is lively in any way.
It is worth noting that Boult doesn’t have the most impressive of records against Australia with the Kiwi pacer averaging 38.09 against the opponents in six previous Test appearances.
Pattinson returns as hosts mull five bowlers dilemma
Australia are dealing with an injury in the pace department as well, with Josh Hazlewood ruled out of the Boxing Day Test. As such, James Pattinson has been confirmed to return to the playing XI for the first time since the Ashes series in England. The fast bowler was in line to feature in the preceding Test series against Pakistan, but he copped a one-match suspension for using abusive language in a Sheffield Shield appearance for Victoria.
Now, the 29-year-old is all set to make only his 20th Test appearance for Australia in what has been a stop-start career, and he will hope to bring his very best at what is his home ground.
While Pattinson has been confirmed to return, there could also be a Test debut for fellow pacer Michael Neser if the hosts do decide to line up with a five-man bowling attack. Skipper Tim Paine has stated that Australia have two playing XIs in mind with the final call set to be taken on Thursday after assessing the pitch. Should they go in with Neser and five bowlers, then it is Travis Head who is most likely to make way from the batting group.
Australia: David Warner, Joe Burns, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Matthew Wade, Travis Head, Tim Paine (c & wk), Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson.
New Zealand: Tom Blundell, Tom Latham, Kane Williamson (c), Henry Nicholls, Ross Taylor, Colin de Grandhomme, BJ Watling (wk), Mitchell Santner, Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Neil Wagner.
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