Will a crowd show up for weaker Australia?
Once upon a time, the one-day international tri-series was a highlight of Australia's cricket summer. You need only catch a World Series Classics replay on Fox Sports to be reminded that the stands were usually heaving with scantily-clad men and women, kids holding home-made banners, and if it's a match from the early 1980s, terry-towelling hats. Tony Greig and Bill Lawry would be calling the action with such fervour that you'd think each game had the World Cup riding on it.
How times change. The triangular series is gone, although it was resurrected last summer with India and Sri Lanka in the country, and the crowds don't flock to 50-over cricket in anything like the numbers they used to. Twenty20 internationals and the Big Bash League have been brought in with the aim of attracting the younger fans, Test cricket remains the premier format, and one-day internationals are left searching for relevance.
It is into this environment that an Australian outfit led by George Bailey and lacking drawcards like David Warner and Shane Watson will venture on Friday, taking on Sri Lanka in a series that two years from the next World Cup, has little riding on it. The broadcasters, Channel Nine, have voiced their displeasure at the lack of big names in Australia's side, although they might change their tune if Aaron Finch tees off on debut.
"I can probably understand it coming from Channel Nine," Bailey said in Melbourne on Thursday. "I think they're about to go into negotiations for the TV rights. I think that was a pretty tactical move to try to talk down one-day cricket and what the Australian team's putting out. But it's still called the Australian cricket team."
On Friday, the Channel Nine cameramen will do their best to focus on the most densely populated stands at the MCG, but there will be huge numbers of empty seats as well. When Australia and Sri Lanka met at the MCG in a one-day game earlier this year the crowd was approximately 29,000, while only 19,000 turned up when they played at the same venue the summer before. By contrast, the BBL Melbourne derby attracted 46,000 fans last weekend.
"I might have a bit of a left-field view but I think the way sport is shown on TV now is so good and you get so much information thrown at you that the better it gets delivered to your couch, the less reasons there are to leave and watch it at a ground," Bailey said. "Big Bash is popular because it goes for three hours and it fits in nicely. There's no doubt one-day cricket takes a bit longer, and I think Test matches are becoming a real event in themselves.
"It's as much about the spectacle as the event itself and the cricket. One-day cricket, as far as crowds go, will be challenged at different times. But I still think the actual cricket itself is very good. There is always going to be a huge element of luck in T20 and I think Test cricket will always be the ultimate test, and I think one-day cricket certainly sits nicely in the middle of those two."
If the last couple of ODIs between the sides at the MCG are any indication, the Melbourne crowd will feature plenty of Sri Lankan supporters from the city's large ex-pat population. Despite the format's battling status in Australia, 50-over cricket remains immensely popular in Sri Lanka, and the team's captain Mahela Jayawardene said he was confident that if the series started well, it would find an audience.
"There's been a lot of cricket played in the summer, and West Indies are coming, there is the Big Bash," Jayawardene said. "But I think there's certainly a lot of interest in world cricket for the 50-over game. For players it will still be exciting, trying to push yourself, but once you play a few good games [the fans] will get into it. I think it's all about how the series is going to start and how exciting it is going to be.
"We've got a really big appetite for 50-over cricket [in Sri Lanka]. I think that's something that drives the national team a lot. They [the Sri Lankan public] enjoy their one-day cricket and T20 cricket a lot more than Test cricket. We don't get big crowds for our Test matches ... but in one-day cricket they definitely get behind the team, they have a good time and enjoy their one-day cricket."
These five matches will also be the first in Australia to be held under new ICC rules that, among other things, prevent captains from placing any more than four fieldsmen outside the circle at any time. The rules aren't quite as radical as the split-innings experiment Australia trialed in the Ryobi Cup last summer but the game's governing bodies hope they will lead to more exciting ODIs as the cricket world builds towards the 2015 World Cup.
"The rule changes are going to be interesting. We've had them for a couple of years at the domestic level," Bailey said. "My only concern with those is not to continue to make them too batter friendly. I don't necessarily think higher-scoring games become better games of cricket. An even contest between bat and ball still provides the best games of cricket. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the international players adapt.
"I think four [fielders] out has challenged the spinners at a domestic level, but I've also seen the best spinners adapt pretty well and still find ways to dominate the game or contribute really well in games. I like the fact that bowlers do get a second bouncer. I like the fact that that leaves a bit more uncertainty in the over. I think they're interesting rule changes. Anything that provides a little bit of uncertainty, even to make captains or teams think a little bit more on their feet, are good changes for the game."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here