Aus­tralia look to sew up se­ries

Boult re­turns as New Zealand get ready for defin­ing Box­ing Day Test at the MCG


Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia - Just five of New Zealand's squad were born when the team last graced the MCG on Box­ing Day.

As for the rest of Kane Wil­liamson's team, well, they can­not pos­si­bly have any mem­o­ries of the event. So the leg­endary con­test be­tween the teams of Al­lan Bor­der and Jeff Crowe, with Mike Whit­ney block­ing out Sir Richard Hadlee's fi­nal over, can only be known through sec­ond-hand knowl­edge.

What no mem­ber of the tour­ing party is in any doubt about, how­ever, is that this may well be a defin­ing Test match for many of the tourists, for it does not ap­pear too likely they will get an­other one.

This re­flects the self-in­ter­est that be­sets much of cricket's econ­omy, even though that afore­men­tioned 1987 Test match was not only great tele­vi­sion, but, by mid-1980s stan­dards, a suc­cess­ful match for spec­ta­tor at­ten­dance - 127,184 in to­tal, in­clud­ing 51,087 on Box­ing Day.

The ground did not ac­tu­ally get a bet­ter at­tended Test match for an­other five years, un­til 137,134 turned up to see West Indies at a ground that had since gained a re­built Great South­ern Stand in 1992.

That, of course, is the other rea­son why this Test match is a defin­ing one, for the MCG it­self.

Fol­low­ing a raft of prob­lems with the sur­face's lack of life dat­ing back to the pre­vi­ous Box­ing Day Test against Eng­land dur­ing the 2017-18 sum­mer, the au­thor­i­ties are at­tempt­ing to take a long-term view, dig­ging up the con­crete slab un­der the drop-in pitches and ex­per­i­ment­ing with a dif­fer­ent clay and soil com­po­si­tion in new pitches that will not be ready for an­other sev­eral years.

In the mean­time, the MCG sur­face can be ex­pected to start with plenty of live grass and mois­ture in it, the bet­ter to get the game mov­ing early on.

This fact may well be New Zealand's best chance for mak­ing in­roads against a strong and con­fi­dent Aus­tralia, as the fit-again Trent Boult, Tim

Southee and Wag­ner would back them­selves to follow up on the prom­ise they showed in re­strict­ing the home side's bats­men for key stretches of the se­ries opener in Perth.

Even so, New Zealand have a mighty task ahead to close the gap be­tween the teams, in or­der to pro­vide a fit­ting reprise of that sto­ried match from 1987. If they do, then they will have ev­ery right to press Cricket Aus­tralia for a more rapid re­turn visit than has been the case this time - to do so be­fore Wil­liamson's glit­ter­ing ca­reer comes to an end might be a start.

The buzz

Aus­tralia: They will in­clude James Pat­tin­son in place of the ham­strung Josh Ha­zle­wood, but coach Justin Langer has in­di­cated that the in­clu­sion of a fifth bowler - pos­si­bly Michael Neser - is a pos­si­bil­ity given the pre­dicted hot con­di­tions and the like­li­hood of the pitch aid­ing bats­men.

New Zealand: Trent Boult will be back from in­jury and Raval has been re­placed by Tom Blun­dell.

In the spot­light

Mar­nus Labuschagn­e: In churn­ing out his first three Test hun­dreds in con­sec­u­tive matches and look­ing more or less un­bowlable dur­ing that time, he has not only im­pressed all ob­servers but also bro­ken down a few ideas long held.

Those about sec­ond divi­sion county cricket be­ing a poor breed­ing ground for Tests, about first-class sta­tis­tics in the Sh­effield Shield be­ing a strong in­di­ca­tor of po­ten­tial qual­ity at in­ter­na­tional level, and about the fool­ish­ness of se­lec­tors choos­ing play­ers with the right at­ti­tude and work ethic over oth­ers with larger ag­gre­gates.

Labuschagn­e will find, with so much more at­ten­tion upon him, that bowlers will de­velop ever more nu­anced plans for him, and the spot­light of his first Box­ing Day will be a test on its own.

Kane Wil­liamson: For about an hour on the sec­ond evening in Perth, he looked ca­pa­ble of help­ing Ross Tay­lor guide New Zealand to a foothold in the Test, only for un­re­lent­ing pres­sure to draw a prod away from the New Zealand cap­tain's body, and a su­perla­tive catch by a div­ing Steven Smith.

Wil­liamson may be helped this time around by the drop­ping of Jeet Raval, whose ev­i­dent un­ease against top qual­ity pace bowl­ing in Perth helped un­set­tle the vis­i­tors' first and sec­ond in­nings al­most right from the start. But even more use­ful will be all the ad­di­tional time in Aus­tralia, and the chance to play on a pitch that, while hope­fully of­fer­ing some life, is highly un­likely to prance quite as high as Perth.


Aus­tralia (likely): David Warner, Joe Burns, Mar­nus Labuschagn­e, Steven Smith, Matthew Wade, Travis Head/Michael Neser, Tim Paine (capt & wk), Pat Cum­mins, James Pat­tin­son, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon

New Zealand (likely): Tom Latham, Tom Blun­dell, Kane Wil­liamson (capt), Ross Tay­lor, Henry Ni­cholls, BJ Watling (wk), Colin de Grand­homme, Mitchell Sant­ner, Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Neil Wag­ner. Match be­gins at 4am, Oman time

Mar­nus Labuschagn­e

Kane Wil­liamson

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