Sri Lanka seek first win in Australia
December 14-18, Bellerive Oval
Start time 1030 (2330 GMT)
For Australian cricket fans, it will be difficult not to think that the main course has been served before the entrée. The battle with South Africa for the No.1 Test ranking has come and gone, all before the most popular part of Australia's international cricket season, the Christmas and New Year period. But as New Zealand showed with their victory in Hobart last summer, classic Test matches can pop up at any time, against any opponent, and now it is Sri Lanka's turn to attempt to produce the unexpected.
It is not that Sri Lanka are a weak Test team, far from it, but their record away from home is disappointing. Leaving aside Bangladesh, Sri Lanka have won only two away Tests in the past five years, and they are yet to win a Test in Australia. But they will take inspiration from their most recent Test in Hobart, when Kumar Sangakkara was driving Sri Lanka towards an incredible chase of 507 when he was wrongly given out caught off his shoulder. Had the DRS been around, it might well have become one of the greatest Test victories of all time.
Sangakkara is back, and along with Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan forms a formidable batting line-up. Sri Lanka's main issue is finding a way to take 20 wickets. But for all the talk of their less-than-threatening seam attack - Rodney Hogg said this week that ''Sri Lanka have the worst new ball attack that has landed on our shores ever" - Shaminda Eranga showed against the Australians on debut in Colombo last year that he is a bowler to watch out for, and he should enjoy the Australian conditions far more than those at home. Much will also depend on how Rangana Herath transfers his home form to the Australian pitches.
The Sri Lankan attack will be coming up against an evolving batting order. Australia's first Test in the post-Ponting era will also be their first with Phillip Hughes at No.3 and Shane Watson at No.4. It is an order they hope can take them through all of next year and a pair of Ashes series, but if there are any cracks in the plan or nerves amongst the batsmen, it is up to Sri Lanka to find them. Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey at Nos.5 and 6 could hardly be in finer touch, so it is all the more important that Sri Lanka don't let Australia's top order feast.
Form guide(Most recent first)
Sri Lanka LWDDW
In the spotlight
Phillip Hughes is only 24, but he has already had a number of incarnations in Australia's Test team. The previous one ended in Hobart last December, when he couldn't avoid edging to the cordon off Chris Martin, a recurring theme in that series against New Zealand. His return will come at the same venue, albeit batting at No.3 instead of opening, and facing one of Test cricket's less imposing seam attacks. All the more reason he must make use of this opportunity. Over the past year, Hughes has worked hard to improve his leg-side play and widen his scoring areas, but whether he can translate that to Test cricket is one of the big questions to be answered in this series.
Who is the leading Test wicket taker over the past 12 months? Graeme Swann? Vernon Philander? James Anderson? No, no and no. It's Rangana Herath, who since this time last year has collected 64 Test victims at 20.64. Although it is true that much of his success has come in home conditions - he took 20 wickets in the two recent Tests against New Zealand in Sri Lanka, and 12 against England in Galle - he will still be a challenging opponent for Australia's batsmen. In his newspaper column on Thursday, Michael Clarke wrote that Herath's accuracy and clever variations made him a difficult prospect, and in his first Test in Australia, in Hobart this week, Herath should take note of Shane Warne's oft-quoted advice: "If it seams, it spins".
Hughes has replaced Ponting in the side and will bat at No.3, with Shane Watson moving down to No.4. Australia's only real question was which bowler to leave out, and Michael Clarke announced on the day before the match that Mitchell Johnson would carry the drinks.
Australia 1 Ed Cowan, 2 David Warner, 3 Phillip Hughes, 4 Shane Watson, 5 Michael Clarke (capt), 6 Michael Hussey, 7 Matthew Wade (wk), 8 Peter Siddle, 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Ben Hilfenhaus, 11 Nathan Lyon.
Dimuth Karunaratne will partner Tillakaratne Dilshan at the top of the order, with Tharanga Paranavitana having been dropped after struggling for his best form for some time now. Nuwan Kulasekara will play after sitting out of the tour match in Canberra, where Shaminda Eranga was the best of the bowlers. They will be joined by Chanaka Welegedara in the pace attack, with no room for Dhammika Prasad.
Sri Lanka 1 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 2 Dimuth Karunaratne, 3 Kumar Sangakkara, 4 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 5 Thilan Samaraweera, 6 Angelo Mathews, 7 Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), 8 Nuwan Kulasekara, 9 Rangana Herath, 10 Shaminda Eranga, 11 Chanaka Welegedara.
Pitch and conditions
There are showers forecast for the first four days of the game, which won't make conditions easy for the batsmen, especially on a Bellerive Oval surface that has been relaid this year and has resulted in some awfully seam-friendly conditions in Sheffield Shield matches. In the three games there this season, the totals in the first innings for the team batting first have been 112, 95 and 67. However, the curator Marcus Pamplin is confident that the Test won't suffer the same fate.
"With such a major restoration of over 70 cubic metres of soil of new black soil into the wicket table, the process of the clay to settle down will take time, but we believe we are in a far better position for a more consistent surface than at the start of the season," Pamplin said. "On the back of a good cricket pitch for the last Sheffield Shield game we think the Test pitch should play better and provide a good contest."
Stats and trivia
- Sri Lanka have only beaten Australia once in a Test match, in Kandy in 1999. The only remaining player from either side who was part of that game is Mahela Jayawardene
- Sangakkara needs another 107 runs to reach 10,000 in Tests and become the 11th man to the milestone
- This will be Australia's first Test in Hobart without Ricky Ponting since 1995, when David Boon was the only Tasmanian in the side against Pakistan
"None of us will be taking Sri Lanka's bowlers for granted even though they may be largely unknown in Australia. It was our batting which let us down during the last Test in Perth."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here