THE NEW YEAR Test in Sydney re-introduces Ashton Agar into Australia’s Test XI for the first time since his fairytale beginnings in 2013. KEN PIESSE reports:
YOU’RE 19, making your Ashes debut, batting 11… a long way from home. Ashton Agar still calls it the favourite week of his life as he made 98, batting with his hero Phil Hughes in a seesawing Ashes contest at Trent Bridge which Australia all but won.
One Test later the Victorian-born allrounder was dropped but the experience was considerable and while it has been more than four years in between Tests, the opportunity to play another Test, on Australian soil, is just about as good as it gets.
He may have been in contention earlier this summer but for a broken finger which saw him miss much of Western Australia’s springtime program. But four wickets, all in one afternoon against the Vics in Melbourne earlier in December, was enough for the selectors to choose him as Nathan Lyon’s spin partner for Sydney and the Fifth Test starting Wednesday.
For many another change could have been made at the high end of the order with the hesitant, out-of-form Usman Khawaja being demoted after under-achieving yet again in the drawn Melbourne Test.
But it seems Khawaja will survive, at least for this Test, but will he remain in Australia’s top order for South Africa for the autumn tour of South Africa?
A series average of 27 is underwhelming, many asking why Steve Smith doesn’t promote himself and bat three and return Peter Handscomb into the top-order.
It may be wise to rest Mitchell Starc for a second consecutive Test and save him for the South African component. His sheer pace was badly missed in Melbourne as England held the high ground from Day 2, the tourists being denied victory by a benign MCG pitch and the resolution of team leaders Steve Smith and David Warner.
England will also make changes to their attack with 20-year-old leg-spinner Mason Crane likely to replace the under-achieving Moeen Ali, who has taken just three wickets at an average of 130-plus.
Crane had a stellar season of Sydney grade cricket as a teenager in 2016-17 and was such a prolific wicket-taker he was included in the New South Wales XI for the final Sheffield Shield home match of the summer in Sydney, when he took five wickets against South Australia.
He’s a big spinner of the ball and very promising.
ON YOUR MARKS…
Locals call it the Paddington Gift and despite the protests of security staff, it’s run at 7 a.m. on the first days of each and every Sydney Test match, members queuing from the early hours before rushing when the gates open to secure the best vantage spots directly behind the wicket.
Sydney has always been one of the great Test match venues, the green-roofed heritage-listed Member’s Stand and the adjourning Ladies Stand providing a direct step back in time for lovers of nostalgia.
The SCG’s New Year Test has been a people’s favorite for years, thousands of interstate and overseas visitors enjoying the spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks display on the Harbor or at Coogee and staying on for the match.
More than 15,000 Brits are estimated to be holidaying Downunder right now. Most have tickets for the match, guaranteeing sellouts for each of the first four days
Most accommodation is sold out months in advance, especially in an Ashes summer.
The grand old ground is within easy walking distance from Central but those less-athletic or short of time may prefer to take a bus from the station. There are dozens to choose from on match mornings.
Unlike Melbourne and particularly Adelaide where the long boundaries, prior to the use of ropes, encouraged an occasional all-run five, the Sydney Cricket Ground is almost perfectly circular, allowing for excellent viewing from all sides of the ground — even if the big square hits, six at most venues, have to be struck out of the screws to even make the fence, especially on the longer Brewongle Stand side.
Those lucky enough to be positioned in the O’Reilly or the new Trumper Stand are closer. It’s just 60 metres or so from the boundary ropes to the Test match wicket.
Sydney’s members, like their counterparts in Melbourne, Hobart and Adelaide, in particular, have a magnificent Museum to explore with new ranges of exhibits from one Test to another. Until last year SCG members could also spend some extra time at a specialist cricket charity bookstall run by the Australian Cricket Society.
The Trumper Stand is very popular among corporates with its state-of-the-art facilities. While the Press Box is high up with the Gods in the new MA Noble, the direct down-the-wicket view is superb.
It was in Sydney where a 37-year-old Steve Waugh, pensioned off from one-day internationals, crunched the last ball of the day from England’s Richard Dawson to reach an against-the-odds century. It was the tough-as-teak Australian’s 10th 100 against the old enemy and came at a time when most had penned his Test obituary. Afterwards Waugh walked into a packed press conference to standing applause, appreciative journalists from Australia and England as privileged as the 42,000 attendees to have witnessed a special Ashes moment.
Sporting, as always, his faded green baggy, Waugh said his final boundary was the perfect New Year’s present. He knew his days as a Test cricketer were numbered. It was satisfying to know that he could still counter-punch at the elite level.
Such batting bliss had rarely been seen at the Sydney Cricket Ground, old-timers having to hark back to the days of Don Bradman and his 100th 100 for an Australian XI against the 1947-48 Indians and Stan McCabe’s Bodyline blitz in 1932-33 to find comparable moments triggering such exultation.
Most recently Australia’s vice-captain David Warner freewheeled to a century before lunch, on the opening morning of the 2017 SCG Test. It was the first time a three-figure score had been registered in the opening session of an Australian-soil Test.
As always, he completed his trademark leap and punched the air in exhilaration.
For those who had queued since the wee, small hours, hoping for some Warner or Steve Smith magic, it was like Christmas all over again.
England give themselves every chance this week as they have traditionally played excellent cricket at the SCG, their recent record including Ashes victories in 2002-03 (by 225 runs) and in 2010-11 (by an innings).
This week’s Sydney Test will again see tens of thousands supporting the McGrath Foundation which continues to be a lead player in breast cancer research. The official pink dress-up day is Day 3 with collectors operating throughout the match.
SPORTSHOUNDS.COM.AU READY RECKONER
THE SCG & THE ASHES
Ground capacity: 48,000
Ends: Randwick (south), Paddington (north)
First Ashes Test: 1881-82
Australia’s record v England: Played 55: Won 26, Lost 22, Drawn 7
Last five Ashes Tests: Australia 3-2
Highest team scores: Australia: 8-659 dec., 1946-47; England: 644, 2010-11
Highest solo scores: Australia: Sid Barnes & Don Bradman 234, 1946-47; England: RE “Tip” Foster 287, 1903-04
Best bowling: Australia: CTB “Terror” Turner 7-43, 1887-88; England: George Lohmann 8-35, 1886-87
Last time: Nicely positioned in symmetrical rows at fine-leg, the 200-odd boys and girls from the Benaud Appreciation Society proclaim victory before lunch on the second morning when England lose 5-23 to the fire and movement of Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris. The visitor’s second innings lasts just two and a half hours as Australia completes an Ashes whitewash
Local hero: Steve Smith… just, from the Kaboom Kid, David Warner
Stats fact: Almost the perfect circle, the SCG is the best “seeing” ground of all the Australian mainland grounds. Since 2000, batsmen have averaged 38 runs per wicket here — figures superior to anywhere else in the country, including Adelaide
Steve Smith’s SCG average: 66
The players say: Quality spinners happily bowl in tandem here, but if the game needs winning on the fifth day, expect the mediums to have an equal say, especially the purveyors of reverse swing. This is England’s happiest hunting ground in Australia. It’s a pity more fans can’t get in to see it.
Expect: The “baby” of England’s touring team Mason Crane to make his Ashes debut and his captain Joe Root to make a big one on Days 1 or 2. Players of his quality rarely fail to make at least one century per major series. His highest so far over the first four Tests is 67.
KEN PIESSE has covered cricket and football for more than 30 years in Melbourne. Despite that setback, Ken has written, published and edited 86 books on cricket and AFL football to become Australian sport’s most prolific author.
His latest cricket book is David Warner, The Bull, Daring to be Different with Wilkinson Publishing, out now