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December 24, 2006
The biggest game of the Australian cricket year just got a whole lot bigger. Boxing Day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is always a massive event but with the retirements of Shane Warne, the home-town hero, and Glenn McGrath the occasion has grown like the commercialisation of Christmas.
A week ago the prospect of a stadium jammed with close to 100,000 spectators was likely to be a non-event. The Ashes had been won in Perth 15 days after the contest started and the Australians had shut down the only team to conquer them since Ricky Ponting's reign began. Now even the thousands of British tourists flying in for what they hoped would be an exhilarating climax have a special event to soften the experience.
First on Warne's list is the one wicket he needs to extend his world record to 700. While the fourth Test is a state farewell for Warne, it is also a game of statistical quirks. Warne's career haul of 699 is helped by the six victims he picked up in the Super Test last year, an ICC decision that upset traditional record keepers, and the Melbourne Cricket Ground is also heavily promoting the ground's 100th Test.
The same statisticians who feel Warne should have to wait say the same about the MCG, which hosted a rained out match in 1970-71 that is credited by Cricket Australia but not the ICC. Neither minor dilemma will matter to the Victorians who laud their ground and idolise Warne.
Warne is not the only Australian looking for a 5-0 defeat of England to cap his career. Ponting has spoken of his desire not to let up on opponents who came with a chance that was quickly washed away. The teams' Christmas celebrations will be different and England should not expect any end-of-series gifts.
Andrew Flintoff has experienced a difficult time on his first playing tour of Australia and knows his side must take any opening in the final two games. "Every time they've come back at us hard, and we've not been able to apply pressure or seize the opportunities," he told reporters. "But for two Test matches, if we're going to have a chance to win against Australia, we've got to do that."
The home side may have trouble focussing on the overall goal as two of their most treasured individuals are honoured over the next two weeks. There is a lot to look forward to for Australian fans as the festive season becomes one of local celebrations.
Australia (probable) 1 Justin Langer, 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Andrew Symonds, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Shane Warne, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Stuart Clark, 11 Glenn McGrath.
England (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss, 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Paul Collingwood, 5 Kevin Pietersen, 6 Andrew Flintoff (capt), 7 Chris Read (wk), 8 Sajid Mahmood, 9 Matthew Hoggard, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 Monty Panesar.
Also, most brothers in a Test XI, and the fastest to 20 ODI centuries
The gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing wider, and the disenchantment is forcing a devaluation of Test cricket among weaker teams
Zulfiqar Babar missed five seasons between his first two first-class matches, and was 34 when he finally made his Test debut, but he is quickly making up for all the lost time with his artful left-arm spin
Out of 70 batsmen who've scored 15 or more Test hundreds only five are from Pakistan, but Younis Khan's appetite for hundreds matches that of some of the top contemporary batsmen
Surviving into the final session of the last day cannot disguise the fact that Australia's continued inability to play spin contributed to an all-round thrashing
The offspinner was Australia's highest wicket-taker in 2013, but his form has dipped sharply this year
When a team loses its best bowler, it is expected that the team's performance will suffer. As usual, Pakistan defied the expectations