Showpiece for hosts, last chance for tourists
December 26-30, MCG
Start time 1030 (2330 GMT)
Australian cricket's biggest day conjures up plenty of memories for the hosts, but only one painful recollection for the visitors. The MCG on Boxing Day was the scene of Darrell Hair's fateful decision to call Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing, in a match that finished in a comfortable 10-wicket victory for Mark Taylor's Australians. Back then, the result was entirely overshadowed by anger surrounding Hair's decision, and the bitterness it engendered was to infect the rest of the tour. This time around there is no such issue burning away, though the ball tampering allegations that marked the latter stages of the Bellerive Oval match provided a reminder that Australia and Sri Lanka seldom oppose one another without something rancorous cropping up.
Pushed into the final hour by Mahela Jayawardene's tourists before claiming victory in Hobart, Australia seek a series win to conclude a year that has been moderately successful if not overwhelmingly so. They remain a team in development, and will take on an even more transitional look on Boxing Day should Michael Clarke not recover from a hamstring strain in time. His absence would hand the captaincy to Shane Watson, while opening the way for Usman Khawaja's recall. The bowling attack has already been re-shaped, Mitchell Johnson and the debutant Jackson Bird shuffling into the spaces left by Ben Hilfenhaus (injured) and Mitchell Starc (unhappily rested).
The Sri Lankans must defy a history of Test match underachievement in Australia if they are to keep the series alive. They have never won a five-day encounter down under, though in Hobart they came close to securing a stalemate. Melbourne and Sydney will afford the visitors pitches more useful to their cause than Hobart proved to be, with Rangana Herath a considerable threat on surfaces offering even a modicum of turn. The greater question for Sri Lanka will be which pacemen can step up to provide wicket-taking support - the lack of an effective pace spearhead has been the overwhelming reason behind their lack of a victory on these shores.
Form guide(Most recent first)
Sri Lanka LLWDD
In the spotlight
Even if Shane Watson does not walk out to toss the coin on the first morning, he will be expected to contribute more substantially in this Test than either of the previous two. So far since his return from injury, Watson has looked a little out of sorts as a batsman, yet to go past 30 in four innings and struggling notably with Herath at Bellerive. Nonetheless, there were signs in Hobart that Watson is growing into more of a leader - his longer-than-usual bowling stints after Hilfenhaus was injured were critical to Australia's ultimate success, even if the wickets column did not suggest it. Having played an undersung role in that result, Watson will now want his name in lights. A Boxing Day century, his first in Tests since 2010, would do that nicely.
In his final series as captain, Mahela Jayawardene dearly wants to leave a Test match mark in Australia. The current outfit is doughty and persistent, but require an influential score by their leader in Melbourne to put Australia under the requisite pressure to push for victory. There are suggestions Jayawardene may have been distracted by a board dispute in recent days, while the ball tampering episode in Hobart indicated that this is a touring team that does not wish to go quietly. Having overcome all manner of squabbles and snares over his career, Jayawardene's capacity to cope is well known. He has the Melbourne Test, and its expected influx of Sri Lankan supporters, to give Australia some headaches.
Clarke's fitness remains the major question for Australia, and it appears more likely he will be saved for future contests rather than carrying a tender hamstring into the Test. Bird is set to debut as the owner of handsome records for Tasmania in Sheffield Shield cricket in general and at the MCG in particular.
Australia 1 Ed Cowan, 2 David Warner, 3 Phillip Hughes, 4 Shane Watson, 5 Michael Clarke/Usman Khawaja, 6 Michael Hussey, 7 Matthew Wade (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Peter Siddle, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Jackson Bird.
The tourists appear likely to enter the match unchanged from their Hobart combination, though Dhammika Prasad is on standby for Nuwan Kulasekara, who is still sore after a blow to the ribs in Hobart.
Sri Lanka (probable) 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
Melbourne's weather is forecast to be pleasantly temperate for the week, while the pitch is also on course to be even tempered, if a little lively early on. The ground's new head curator David Sandurski has likened the Test strip to that played on by Victoria and South Australia in a November Shield fixture, in which the left-arm paceman Gary Putland plucked 12 wickets but Phillip Hughes cracked 158 on his way back to the national team.
Stats and trivia
- Sri Lanka's one previous Boxing Day visit to the MCG resulted in a 10-wicket defeat in 1995 - infamous as the match in which Muttiah Muralitharan was called for throwing by the umpire Darrell Hair
- If passed fit, Michael Clarke needs another 55 runs to better Ricky Ponting's Australian record for most runs in a calendar year
- Kumar Sangakkara enters the match 40 short or passing 10,000 Test runs
"It's improving every day. I did a fair bit of running today in the indoor nets. A decision can't be made today. I really need to wait and see how I pull up tomorrow morning."
Michael Clarke on his problematic hamstring
"I think we've been through a lot of hostile things in the past. 1995 was one thing, and even after that. I don't think it will faze our guys at all. If anything that might give us a little extra."
Mahela Jayawardene on the prospect of facing a rough crowd in Melbourne
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here