The biggest stage set to sizzle
December 26-30, Melbourne
Start time 10:30 (23:30 GMT)
The Big Picture
It doesn't get much bigger than this: Boxing Day at the MCG in front of a potential crowd of 90,000, the Ashes up for grabs, the series level at 1-1 with two Tests to play, England sweating on the fitness of their best bowler and Australia hoping their captain can play with a broken finger. This is Test cricket at its most intoxicating. Can the match live up to the hype?
Australia's victory at the WACA might have disappointed England fans keen to see the urn safely in the visitors' hands as soon as possible. But for the series, and for the spectacle of Boxing Day in Melbourne, a level series leading in to the match is a tantalising prospect. Should Australia win, or secure a draw, either team will still be able to take home the Ashes with one Test to play.
And things aren't as straightforward as they seemed a fortnight ago. England's strike bowler James Anderson is under an injury cloud with a side problem, and their No. 5 Paul Collingwood is in poor form. Australia haven't solved their spin conundrum, having escaped from the WACA without needing one, and they could give a debut to a man with the grand tally of seven first-class matches under his belt.
It all combines to set the scene for one of the most fascinating contests seen in Australia in recent years. And if the home team prevails, the New Year Test in Sydney will be even bigger.
Form guide(most recent first)
Watch out for...
He began the series as Australia's most under-pressure batsman, but now Michael Hussey is the one banker in a line-up that has struggled to post big totals. By freeing his thinking and playing his natural game, Hussey has sparked a career renaissance that has brought his highest Test score and six consecutive 50-plus Ashes scores, which is a record. On the slowish Melbourne surface, he will have plenty of time to pull.
Ian Bell is in form, but hasn't had much opportunity yet to post a big Ashes hundred, given how solid the rest of the top order has been. He is still desperately searching for that first Test century against Australia, after 16 Ashes Tests. If Australia hand the spinner Michael Beer a debut, Bell will certainly attack him hard, and it could be an important passage in the Test.
Ricky Ponting appears certain to play despite having a broken finger, so the only question for Australia surrounds the make-up of their attack. The slow MCG drop-in pitches usually mean a spinner is required, so Beer could come in for his debut. If that is the case, Peter Siddle is likely to be the unlucky fast man who would be left out.
Australia (probable) 1 Shane Watson, 2 Phillip Hughes, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Clarke, 5 Michael Hussey, 6 Steven Smith, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Ryan Harris, 10 Michael Beer, 11 Ben Hilfenhaus.
England's batting group is settled, despite Collingwood's slump, and their decisions are also bowling related. Anderson's side problem has placed him in doubt, while Steven Finn might be rested if Anderson plays. Either way, Tim Bresnan is likely to come in alongside Chris Tremlett and either Finn or Anderson.
England (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Ian Bell, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Tim Bresnan, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 Chris Tremlett, 11 James Anderson
Pitch and conditionsMelbourne's drop-in pitches are usually slow and low, which will be a change after the lively surface in Perth. "I would think on the WACA's worst day they would still be faster and bouncier than anything we normally turn out," the MCG curator Cameron Hodgkins said. Batting often becomes easier as the match progresses. The forecast for the first day is for a shower or two and 21C.
Stats and trivia
- Ricky Ponting enters this match having played in 99 Test victories, and should Australia prevail, he will be the first player in history to take part in 100 Test wins
- Australia have won 10 of the past 11 Tests at the MCG, the only loss in that time coming against South Africa two years ago
- Mike Hussey has scored 517 runs and Alastair Cook has 495 for the series. With two Tests remaining, both men have made more than any player did during the entire 2009 Ashes series
- The record crowd for cricket at the MCG was 90,800, set on day two of the Australia-West Indies Test in 1960-61
Quotes"The Boxing Day Test is always very special because the guys have their families, it's a great time of the year. Everyone is pretty excited and probably a bit more excited after winning in Perth as well."
"Huge support for Australia, Ashes on the line, there's going to be a lot of pressure around and personally that excites me. It's a great test for us as a side."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at Cricinfo