Justin Langer has kept the door ajar to Australia employing the rare tactic of playing five frontline bowlers should they be confronted by a flat-looking MCG surface on Boxing Day which could hand a Test debut to Michael Neser.
James Pattinson will fill Josh Hazlewood’s role, but Langer is conscious of the toil Australia’s attack has faced in the previous two Boxing Day Tests against England and India. The final decision may be taken as late as the morning of the game with Travis Head the most likely to make way should the bowling unit be bolstered by Neser’s inclusion.
There has been much discussion on what the nature of the MCG pitch will be following the abandoned Sheffield Shield game earlier this month, but groundsman Matt Page has promised a decent covering of grass and two days out there was still a good layer on the surface.
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In the previous two Melbourne Tests Australia have had Mitchell Marsh in the team but he was out of contention after breaking his hand punching the dressing room wall earlier this season.
While the change would give Australia a lengthy lower order – with Tim Paine elevated to No. 6 – Pattinson, Neser, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc are all handy with the bat; Neser has a first-class average of 25.13 (plus a domestic one-day hundred) and Pattinson 23.07.
Peter Siddle, who was added to the squad after Hazlewood’s injury, is the other bowler available but Langer has made clear he favours consistency in selection and rewarding those who have previously been around the squad.
The last time Australia fielded five genuine bowlers at home (as opposed to an allrounder in a five-man attack) was January 2013 against Sri Lanka, at the SCG, when Matthew Wade batted at No. 6 and Mitchell Johnson was used at seven.
“We’ll work out what the set-up of our team is going to be, whether we play an extra bowler,” Langer said. “We’ll have a look at the wicket, it looks pretty good two days out.
“The only reason we’d do it is if the wicket looks anything like it has the last few years here on the Boxing Day Test because you have to get 20 wickets. The Australia cricket team doesn’t usually go down that path of the extra bowler, but if we are to play on wickets like we have the last two years at the MCG we’ve certainly got to find a way of taking 20 wickets.
“There’s been so much discussion about the wicket we are hopeful that’s not the case, but if we were to turn up on Boxing Day and it looks really flat we have the flexibility to be able to do it. In most circumstances you don’t need it which is why we don’t do it.”
Australia have not needed a great deal from their middle order so far this season with Marnus Labuschagne filling his boots at No. 3 and David Warner being prolific against Pakistan. Wade and Head have a fifty apiece – with Head’s coming in the previous Test in Perth – and it is a curious fact of the summer that the one member of the top six who has yet to reach a half-century is Steven Smith.
“Great, isn’t it,” Langer said. “If you are playing good cricket, the team is winning, and Steve Smith isn’t doing well it puts a smile on everyone’s face because you know it’s not far away. He loves the big stage, looking forward to watching him bat.”
Smith twice fell to Neil Wagner’s short ball in Perth – one of the few overall successes for New Zealand in the match – and has worked on combating that angle of attack ahead of the Melbourne Test where he has a formidable record. Prior to missing last year due to his ban, Smith had made hundreds in his previous four Boxing Day Tests dating back to 2014 against India.
His twin dismissals in the opening Test continued a little bit of a trend against New Zealand having also fallen in that manner during the World Cup match at Lord’s.
“I’ve changed a little bit in that I’ve been facing a fair bit of short stuff in the nets because I’m expecting a bit,” he said of his preparation. “It’s going to be completely different with the red ball as opposed to the pink ball, especially the second innings in Perth when it was a bit up and down, that’s never easy at any time, so it will be different but I’m looking forward it.
“In the first innings, think I was 40 off 160 rocks, I got underneath them for a while there, and it got to a point where it was about moving the game forward a little quicker and I just didn’t execute [the shot] very well. The second innings was a bit harder, but we’ll see what happens out here. Certainly looking forward to the red ball.”