Australia wrong-footed by dry pitch
Australia's selectors appear to have been wrong-footed by a bone dry SCG surface for their pivotal meeting with Sri Lanka, forcing them to consider the recall of Shane Watson - only one match after he was dropped - and the inclusion of the left-arm spinner Xavier Doherty for his first game of the World Cup.
The captain Michael Clarke was told by the coach Darren Lehmann and his fellow selector Mark Waugh that the panel was reserving judgment on the composition of their XI, opening up the possibility of including Watson for his bowling expertise on slower surfaces and Doherty as the squad's only slow bowling option. The spin bowling coach John Davison was working prominently with Doherty on match eve.
Late-season Sydney surfaces have a tendency to tire, and the strip being prepared for Sunday has the look of one that will spin and also get slower as the night goes on, even if the ground staff were seen sprinkling grass clippings onto the surface and rolling them in during mid-afternoon.
"Looking at the wicket today [and] if we had to play today, the toss would be crucial," Clarke said. "But a day of sun on the pitch, and a bit of rolling tomorrow, might be a little bit different. Generally under lights at the SCG the ball can skid on a bit more, outfield looks magnificent so think it's going to be a fast outfield, it's just how much the wicket slows up and that'll be dictated by how hard the pitch is tomorrow, I think.
"If we turn up tomorrow and the wicket is rock hard, I think it'll be a really consistent pitch for both teams. If it's still a bit tacky like it's today then I'd really want to bat first if I was playing today. It looks like spin is going to play a part. Looks quite dry and certainly hasn't got as much grass on it as I've seen in past one-day matches at the SCG."
Australia's apparent unhappiness about the surface illustrates how pitch preparation in the country does not run according to the whims of the home side. Contrast this with the last time Australia met Sri Lanka in a World Cup, in Colombo during the 2011 tournament, when a strip described as "rolled mud" by the visitors seemed tailored to Sri Lanka, though a washout prevented them from taking full advantage.
Should Watson play, it would be a major change from the strategy that appeared to have been established when he was left out against Afghanistan. While the omission of Watson was criticised by his former captain and friend Ricky Ponting, it suggested that a top order of Aaron Finch, David Warner, Steven Smith and Clarke would be the norm for the rest of the tournament.
However, it is now plausible that Watson will be included for Mitchell Marsh, who complained of foot soreness in Perth and is not known for his ability to extract wickets on slow pitches - something that was apparent during his brief spell against New Zealand at Eden Park when he was used and Watson was not.
Irrespective of the team he is given, it will be Clarke's responsibility to name the batting order, and he suggested Watson would not have to bat at No. 3 if included, following Smith's successful return to the position at the WACA Ground where his composure helped allow Warner and Glenn Maxwell to spread their wings.
"I think he [Watson] can bat anywhere," Clarke said. "I think he's shown at the top of the order he's been extremely successful. He averages over 40 in one-day cricket and he's striking at about 90 so I think he's skillful enough to bat anywhere in the order, but I think he's shown he loves batting up the top in all forms of the game."
As for Clarke, an extra session of throw-downs with the batting coach Michael Di Venuto underlined how much he was striving for some semblance of batting touch ahead of a match that will dictate who finishes second in group A and wins a more favourable draw. Defeat for Australia may mean an away semi-final against New Zealand in Auckland rather than a home date in Sydney, something Clarke will be eager to avoid.
"I feel I'm fitter and healthier than I've been in a long, long time," he said. "I have that hunger to be successful and help Australia go as far as we possibly can in this World Cup. I've copped a fair bit of criticism over the last few months, so I'm excited about what lies ahead. I feel I'm at my best and ready to have this team have success."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig