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 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 their home summer to hone a battle-hardened attack lie in tatters.
However, Australia’s selectors have compounded the angst 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 (MCG) dressing room when the Test starts today.
“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 favor ahead of tours to India and England.
However, Johnson 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.