Bird to make Boxing Day debut
Jackson Bird will become Australia's 431st Test cricketer on Boxing Day against Sri Lanka after the coach Mickey Arthur confirmed the left-arm fast bowler Mitchell Starc would be rested. The decision means the only remaining uncertainty around Australia's side is the fitness of the captain Michael Clarke, who will be given until the morning of the match to prove himself ready, after batting in the MCG nets on Monday.
Bird, 26, will share the new ball with Peter Siddle and his strong record in Melbourne, where he has taken 14 first-class wickets in two matches, indicates he should be suited to the conditions. However, there will be extra pressure on Bird given that the man he is replacing, Starc, collected 5 for 63 in the second innings of Australia's victory against Sri Lanka in Hobart and remains fit and will be left out only because of workload concerns.
Starc, 22, is expected to return to the side for the Sydney Test, and his rotation out of the team means Bird, Siddle and Mitchell Johnson will share the pace duties in Melbourne. Arthur defended Australia's decision to rest Starc, who has taken 14 wickets in the past two Tests, and said it was made with the goal of ensuring he will remain fit for Australia's busy upcoming schedule in 2013.
"That's a real tough decision to make," Arthur said. "It's a tough conversation with Mitch and he took it very well. He's clearly very disappointed and I wouldn't expect anything other than that. We've just got to look and see the amount of cricket that we've got going forward. Mitch is integral to that.
"Mitch is our one quick bowler who plays in all three forms of the game. He starts in all three forms of the game. It is tough on Mitch but hopefully he misses one Test to make sure that we don't have another injury and that there's a lot of longevity with that decision and he's ready to go in the one-dayers, he's ready to go for the tour of India and he's ready to go for the Ashes."
Arthur said he was confident Bird could handle the pressures of Test cricket given the way he had risen to first-class cricket since making his debut last summer. Bird, who plays for Tasmania having moved from New South Wales to gain greater opportunities, is a consistent bowler who works on a nagging line and length.
"When he went down to Tassie he has bowled unbelievably well, he's taken 50 wickets last season and well on the way, leading wicket-taker in the Shield this year," Arthur said. "He brings line and length, he brings pressure, he swings the ball out, he brings some nice pace. He's got all the attributes of a quick bowler. We've got a lot of faith in Jackson. At the start of the summer we had a list of bowlers that we wanted to keep fresh and keep ready to go and Jackson was one of them."
Bird spent Monday morning working hard in the nets, where all eyes were on Australia's captain Clarke, who continued his recovery from a hamstring injury. Clarke faced 15 minutes of throwdowns from the assistant batting coach Stuart Law and then spent about half an hour facing the bowlers, including Johnson, Nathan Lyon and John Hastings, who is not part of the squad, and he also jogged between the wickets to test his running.
Australia will not make a decision on whether Clarke leads the side or hands the reins to the vice-captain Shane Watson until the morning of the match, and while Arthur said he was happy with Clarke's progress, he also indicated that the upcoming workload would need to be taken into consideration. The decision will be made based on advice from Clarke and the team physio Alex Kountouris.
"We'll give the skipper as long as possible," Arthur said. "That might only be on the morning of the game. He's clearly improving. Whether or not that gets it over the line I'm not sure. But we'll give him right until the very last before we make that call.
"I'd love Michael Clarke captaining the team in a Boxing Day Test match with a series on the line. He went far better today than he did yesterday and I suspect he'll go far better tomorrow than he did today. It's a 50-50 call. We've got to be mindful as well, much like the Mitchell Starc decision, of the amount of important cricket that we've got coming up. We've got to be intelligent with the decision we make. But if I was a betting man I'd bet on Michael Clarke leading the team out on Boxing Day."
Dean Jones, the former Test batsman and batting coach of South Australia, has been on hand at the MCG over the past couple of days, working as a mentor to the batsmen in the same way that Allan Border, Greg Blewett, Tom Moody and Matthew Hayden have earlier this summer. Jones spent plenty of time with Clarke in the nets on Monday and said while he was impressed with the captain's work, the test would be running between the wickets in a match situation.
"[He was ] absolutely superb, I couldn't fault him at all," Jones said. "He ran a bit between the wickets and he was good. He's going to take it until the last minute I think, but batting wise he was fine. [But] with the soft surrounds around the pitch, if you bat first and you're running between the wickets, you get into a situation where there might be half a chance of a run-out, you put your spikes in and you see what happens there. I'm bullish the way he is. He looked really good in the nets. Better than yesterday."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here