It has been six long years since the Sydney Cricket ground hosted a Test match which was not a dead rubber. For the a historic ground and an iconic Test match, the first of the New Year, the Sydney test in the recent past has turned into an Australian experimental match. Different combinations have been tried and the behaviour of the pitch has varied significantly.
But despite all the experiments and the lack of significance of the Test in the context of the series, the Sydney Test public keeps churning out in numbers. Once again this year, the first three days of the Test have been sold out and with England preventing an Ashes whitewash in Melbourne, hopes have risen again within the English supporters of a victory on Australian soil.
There is no holding back in the Australian camp, Steve Smith might have sat out the training session, but the Australian skipper is itching to add to his century tally on his home ground after missing out in the last two years. On this current form it seems impossible to prevent him. In two of the three matches won by Australia, he has been the difference between the two teams.
England has tried absolutely everything. Around the wicket, over the wicket, spin, pace, short ball, yorkers, cutters and also put a man in almost every inch of the turf one can imagine, but still failed to stop him. Once again in Sydney, he will be the key. The only time he has failed in the series has been in Adelaide where the ball deviated off the pitch.
The chances of the ball moving alarmingly on this Sydney pitch are quite slim. There was a tingling of grass on the surface, but as is usually the case, it will only aid with the ball coming on to the bat rather than seaming off the pitch. Which begs the question once again–Can England take 20 wickets on it?
After trying all the theories England seems to be out of ideas and seemed to have made a radical decision of bringing in an uncapped leg-spinner. Mason Crane will make his debut on Thursday, but if his figures are anything to go by then he is in for a tough task. Crane averages 44 from his 25 first-class matches, to put that into context, even England’s part-time leg-spinner, David Malan averages less than him. It is a move in desperation, much like four years ago when trying to avoid a whitewash England decided to play front-line batsmen in Scott Bortwick and asked him to be the primary spinner. England lost the match and suffered whitewash.
To be fair, unless James Anderson can dislodge the Australian batting order (including Smith) in his opening burst with the new ball, it is difficult to see England bowling Australia out for less than 400 in the home team’s first innings. Which means England must do what they did in the first innings in Melbourne and that is to score close to 450-500.
It is difficult task to repeat, especially with Mitchell Starc returning to the Australian line-up. Before the Melbourne Test match, James Anderson had remarked that the Australian bowling line-up will be severely hampered if one of Starc, Cummins or Hazlewood breaks down. In a way, he was spot on because without Starc and a benign pitch the Australian pace battery looked slightly pedestrian.
The fact that Starc has declared himself fit is an ominous sign for England. It means Alastair Cook, fresh from his double century in Melbourne, will face a tougher initiation when he begins his innings. Cook, along with Malan and Bairstow have all scored hundreds in the series. While it is rare for all the top six to score hundreds in a series, it is time for Joe Root to finally make an impression in Australia with the bat. Root’s front foot press across his stumps has been targeted by the Australian quicks and expect the fast men to target the English captain’s front pad again.
If anything Root has clearly felt the burden of captaincy and has not batted as freely. Perhaps the time has come, to take the bowling on and bring out the horizontal shots and put the pacers on the back foot. For throughout the series, the Australian pacers have been allowed to dominate by the short ball, it is time for the top order to take it on rather than sitting back and riding it.
In the Australian camp, the fifth match presents a great opportunity for the out of touch Usman Khawaja and Cameron Bancroft. With the South African tour just around the corner, Bancroft simply has to score runs to ensure he gets on that plane while Khawaja might not get a better pitch to bat on for some time. To be fair, apart from Smith and Shaun Marsh, there has been no inclination that the Australian top order has improved against a moving ball and the likes of Khawaja would love to head to South Africa with runs under their belt to boost their confidence.
The Sydney Test rarely provides answers in the future, but one thing is for sure, it is definitely never short of excitement. Warner smashed a ton here before lunch last year and sent the crowd into raptures. While Warner might not be able to repeat that again this year, the crowd is certain to enjoy the moment Steve Smith, along with his teammates gets his hands on the little urn, officially. Dead rubber or not, the Sydney Test never fails to entertain.