A Boxing Day Test match is always steeped in tradition, but convention was certainly not their stated position when the Australian selectors on Saturday opted for a tried and tested playing XI in the first Test against India beginning at the MCG on the day after Christmas.
Rather than gamble desperately with young and the untested in the year-ending Test match, they handed senior pros like Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey a chance to ring in the New Year on a cheerful note by making a strong statement with the bat.
By leaving out all-rounder Daniel Christian and young pacer Mitchell Starc from the previously announced 13-member squad, the Australian selectors have made one thing clear — that Ponting and Hussey, despite their woeful form with the bat, enjoy their vote of confidence for the opening skirmish against India, but unless the duo starts repaying this faith with runs, it could be a tearful New Year for the two stalwarts.
The Indian team management too is expected to follow on similar lines. Even though coach Duncan Fletcher and skipper MS Dhoni, who conducted full-fledged nets at the MCG complex on Saturday, and promised another session on Christmas Day, refused to even drop a hint about their possible combination, it could well be a fairly simple exercise, especially after Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma bowled longish spells in the nets on successive days. With both showing no apparent discomfort, nerves have settled somewhat in the Indian dressing room.
Plagued by injuries to key players in England, skipper Dhoni is loathe to making early announcements. “It is good to see them back in action. As of today, both Ishant and Zaheer are fit and are expected to play the first Test, but there are two days in-between, and ‘a lot can happen in this time’,” said Dhoni.
The others literally pick themselves. Virender Sehwag, who was dropped for the Boxing Day Test during India’s last visit here in 2007-08, on Saturday, responded with a typically aggressive batting display against net bowlers before turning his ire against the bowling machine at the indoor training facility.
Sehwag, who was dismissed cheaply in the two warm-up matches India played in Canberra, looked least perturbed by it all. Asked about Sehwag’s lack of timing in Australia, Dhoni made it clear that keeping the seasoned opener out of the mix was not on his mind.
“He is a key player for us. He looks to dominate the bowling by scoring quickly, and this puts the opposition under pressure,” said Dhoni in defence of the basher, who is set to resume his opening partnership with Gautam Gambhir here with Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman to follow. Dravid, who was the only Indian player to ‘opt’ for complete rest on Saturday, is expected to train with the squad on Sunday.
Virat Kohli is set to take the sixth batting spot ahead of Rohit Sharma, while the two remaining bowling slots are expected to be taken by Umesh Yadav and R Ashwin.
Like, India, Australia too will be relying on just four frontline bowlers – three pacers and one spinner – to do the job for them. Given the lack of depth in the bowling department of both teams, bowlers from either side will need plenty of help from the drop-in pitch at the MCG that promises both bounce and carry. With a thick cloud cover expected on Day 1, the swing bowlers should have a big say in the proceedings.