MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia will look to extend their Christmas cheer into the dead rubber Boxing Day test by subjecting a demoralised England to a fourth consecutive loss in the Ashes at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Anchored by the brilliant batting of captain Steve Smith, the hosts have barely put a foot wrong in the five-match series and will head to the MCG confident of pushing England toward a second successive whitewash on home soil.
However, they will have to do it without their pace spearhead Mitchell Starc, who is nursing a heel injury and has been replaced by Jackson Bird.
While Starc’s absence is a big relief for the tourists, Tasmania paceman Bird has been in impressive form in the domestic Sheffield Shield.
Right-armer Bird also has ample MCG experience, having made his test debut against Sri Lanka at the Melbourne colosseum and also bowled in last year’s Boxing Day test against Pakistan.
More of a line and length bowler, Bird’s inclusion robs Australia of the express pace, swing and left-arm variation of Starc, however.
“They’ve had three bowlers who can all bowl 90 miles an hour (144 kph),” England paceman James Anderson told the BBC of Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins.
“But you look beyond that, they’ve got problems.”
England have a few of their own issues to deal with, not least the worrying form of their senior players.
With opening batsman Alastair Cook and paceman Stuart Broad both enduring a poor series, pundits have called on selectors to be ruthless and start the regeneration of Joe Root’s team now rather than later.
The calls are almost certain to be ignored given the players’ long service and lofty standing, but the pair will hope to prove they still belong at the highest level in the final tests in Melbourne and Sydney.
England’s pace stocks have been gutted by injuries and they are another man down with Craig Overton ruled out of the Melbourne match with a broken rib.
The tourists’ lack of pace has been exposed on Australia’s flat wickets, so selectors might opt to recall Durham fast man Mark Wood rather than pick the slower Jake Ball.
Queries over Moeen Ali also linger, the all-rounder struggling with the bat and his off-spin doing little to support England’s fast bowlers.
Uncapped Mason Crane, a legspinner with an average of 43.98, is in reserve in the squad but battling Australia’s pressure-free batsmen in front of a huge Boxing Day crowd could prove a harrowing debut for the 20-year-old.
England’s last trip to Melbourne was a miserable one, as Michael Clarke’s Australia thrashed Cook’s tourists by eight wickets to take a 4-0 lead in the series.
Dead rubber aside, the Boxing Day test is one of the great carnivals of Australian sport but a heavy security blanket at the MCG will add a sombre tone.
A driver with a history of mental illness but with no known extremist links injured 19 people in the nearby CBD on Friday when he ploughed through Christmas shoppers. [nL4N1OM0OY]
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty