MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A last-gasp victory over Sri Lanka in Hobart gave Australia a sorely needed boost after disappointment against South Africa, but a mounting injury toll has tempered the hosts’ Christmas cheer in the lead-up to the second test in Melbourne.
Captain Michael Clarke, in white-hot form with the bat, remains a doubt to play the Boxing Day test after suffering a hamstring strain at Hobart, while front-line seamer Ben Hilfenhaus has been ruled out with a side strain.
Top young talents Pat Cummins and James Pattinson have already been lost for the series, and have been joined in the casualty ward by fellow quicks John Hastings and Josh Hazlewood.
Six months out from the Ashes, Australia’s hopes of using its home summer to hone a battle-hardened attack lie in tatters.
Australia’s selectors have compounded the angst, however, with a controversial rotation policy that has seen injury-free bowlers rested for fear they might break down, drawing howls of criticism from former players and pundits.
The in-form Mitchell Starc is the latest casualty of that policy, and despite taking a five-wicket haul to help Australia seal the Hobart win, will cool his heels in the Melbourne Cricket Ground dressing room when the test starts Wednesday.
“We’ve got to be very mindful of the fact that we’ve got such a lot of important cricket coming up,” Australia head coach and selector Mickey Arthur told reporters on Monday.
“And Mitch will be integral to that. It’s tough on Mitch but hopefully he misses one test to make sure we don’t have another injury.”
Paceman Starc’s enforced break and Hilfenhaus’s absence mean Australia will bring an overhauled pace attack for a third consecutive test.
The mercurial Mitchell Johnson earns a recall after being dumped following the third and final test against South Africa in Perth.
Although the Proteas’ batsmen bullied Australia in the series-sealing victory at the WACA, the 31-year-old Johnson was the pick of the hosts’ bowlers and will hope for a big haul to remain in favour ahead of tours to India and England.
Johnson, however, may have to wait his turn behind debutant Jackson Bird, who will open the bowling against Sri Lanka’s formidable batting lineup in front of a bumper crowd at the MCG.
The 26-year-old Bird has played only 17 first-class matches, but is the leading wicket-taker in the domestic Sheffield Shield, and has enjoyed good form for his adopted Tasmania state in his two matches at the MCG.
He is likely to share the new ball with fiery paceman Peter Siddle, who took nine wickets in a man-of-the-match performance at Hobart and is the only pace bowler retained from the first test.
Sri Lanka have their own pace bowling problems, with their raw attack struggling in Hobart, but they will again pin their hopes of a breakthrough first test win in Australia on their batsmen and spinner Rangana Herath.
With the team having lost the coin toss and the benefit of batting first, Sri Lanka’s batsmen frustrated the Australian bowlers for nearly four sessions on a deteriorating wicket at Hobart, only to collapse after tea and surrender the test within the last hour.
They will hope to have better luck with the toss at the MCG, where the drop-in pitch traditionally rewards batting sides who survive a torrid first session on day one, before offering something for the spinners on days four and five.
The Sri Lankans have additional motivation in their first Boxing Day test in 17 years, with master batsman Kumar Sangakkara needing only 40 runs to reach the magical 10,000-run milestone in tests.
The 35-year-old would become only the 11th cricketer to reach the landmark and second Sri Lankan after captain Mahela Jayawardene.
“I think Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela have played a huge part with the youngsters,” middle order batsman and captain-in-waiting Angelo Mathews told reporters.
“We would like to get (Sangakkara) 100 this time. It’s a very special game for us.”
Australia skipper Clarke had a short session batting in the nets on Monday and would be given until the last minute to prove his fitness, the team’s coach Arthur said.
Should he fail to recover, vice captain Shane Watson will take the reins, with six-test top order batsman Usman Khawaja replacing Clarke in the order.
Editing by John O'Brien