Friday, December 25, 2009

Battle of the unpredictable begins

Match facts
December 26-30, 2009
Start time 10.30am (23.30 GMT)

Big Picture
It's hard to know what to expect from a contest between the team that has played the most Tests over the past two years and the side that has played the fewest. Australia's hectic schedule means they've played 27 Tests since this time in 2007, while Pakistan's home circumstances have limited them to eight Tests in the same period. Australia are coming off a 2-0, though tightly-fought, series against West Indies. Pakistan have just drawn 1-1 in New Zealand.

In years gone you could confidently predict not just an Australian win, but a rout, so dominant have they been against Pakistan since the mid-90s. But this is a different Australia side and as the series against West Indies proved, one closer back to the pack than ever before. This Pakistan side retains the essence of all Pakistan sides and thus capable of anything.

What can be expected for sure is some high quality pace bowling. After a decade of batting riches, cricket suddenly finds itself with good fast bowlers floating around and few are more exciting than the ones Australia and Pakistan have; between them, Doug Bollinger, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson, Mohammad Aamer, Mohammmad Asif and Umar Gul are likely to determine the fate of the series.

If Pakistan feel they have the better spinners in Danish Kaneria and Saeed Ajmal, Australia will be more than confident that their batting is by far the stronger. But if all goes well, it could be the most closely-fought series between the two sides since the 1994-95 tussle in Pakistan.

Form guide (last five Tests, most recent first)
Australia - WDWLW
Pakistan - DWLDL
Watch out for
Doug Bollinger: He has become Australia's newest cult bowling hero. He entertains his team-mates with his antics, thrills the fans with his wholeheartedness and good humour, and worries the opposition with his pace, swing and consistency. Chris Gayle made no secret of the fact that he felt Bollinger was the most dangerous of Australia's fast men during the recent Test series and Bollinger will be desperate to ensure his place in the attack becomes permanent.

Three hundreds on an impressive Pakistan A tour to Australia in July brought Umar Akmal into the national side and he hasn't stopped scoring since; he already has two international hundreds and a spate of fifties. He was hugely impressive in his maiden Test tour against New Zealand and his clear-headed aggression and a steady technique should win him more fans here.

Team news
All the talk in the lead-up to the Test has surrounded Ricky Ponting's fitness after suffering elbow tendon damage in the third Test against West Indies. He trained well on Thursday and Friday and is more than likely to take his place in the side come Boxing Day. On the off chance he is ruled out, Phillip Hughes will come in. Siddle also looks set to return in place of fellow Victorian Clint McKay after sitting out the WACA Test against West Indies with a hamstring strain. Siddle bowled without trouble in a state one-day match on Wednesday. A long-standing groin problem for Nathan Hauritz has opened the doors for young legspinner Steve Smith, but Australia will give Hauritz time till the morning of the Test before making a final call.

Australia (probable) 1 Shane Watson, 2 Simon Katich, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Marcus North, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Nathan Hauritz/Steve Smith, 10 Peter Siddle, 11 Doug Bollinger.

Pakistan have no such injury concerns though a niggle to the fourth finger on Danish Kaneria's spinning hand is being looked at. There is talk in the camp of playing an extra spinner in place of a fast bowler, but that will depend on the surface and a decision is expected later. Pakistan will not readily dismantle the pace trio that served them so well in New Zealand.

Pakistan (probable) 1 Salman Butt, 2 Imran Farhat, 3 Faisal Iqbal, 4 Mohammad Yousuf (capt), 5 Misbah-ul-Haq, 6 Umar Akmal, 7 Kamran Akmal (wk), 8 Mohammad Aamer, 9 Umar Gul/Saeed Ajmal, 10 Mohammad Asif, 11 Danish Kaneria

Pitch and conditions
The drop-in MCG pitches have generally provided a slowish surface in recent years and the runs haven't always flowed as easily as at other venues. The forecast for the five days is mostly good, with temperatures expected to rise as the game goes on.

Stats and Trivia
Pakistan have played eight Tests at the MCG for two wins, in 1978-79 and 1981-82
Australia's loss to South Africa in Melbourne last summer ended a run of nine consecutive wins for Australia at the MCG
The MCG is the only one of Australia's five major venues at which Michael Clarke has not scored a Test century
"I think the conditions here and probably in Sydney as well will help Pakistan."
Michael Clarke

"Because Australia don't have McGrath and Warney anymore, there are more chances of sides coming and playing well over here."
Salman Butt

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