It's every cricketer's Christmas dream: a Test match at the 'G, with a big crowd in attendance. While Australia's players experience this annually, for everyone in this South African squad, it is their first time featuring in this iconic occasion.
None of them were part of the 2008 squad that stunned Australia and claimed South Africa's post-readmission series win in the country. But, from what they've said in the build-up, almost all of them were awake in the wee hours of the morning, watching in wonder as a team who had not been beaten in 28 home series since 1992 were brought down to earth by JP Duminy and Dale Steyn.
In the years since, Cricket South Africa sought to keep their team at home over the festive period - a reasonable plan considering it is prime summer in South Africa too, but a far less successful one than Australia's. None of the three venues CSA have tried to host the Boxing Day Test - St George's Park, Kingsmead and SuperSport Park - are ever as full, or as intimidating, as the MCG.
That last thought is something South Africa will have to guard against as they enter what is a must-win Test if they hope to keep the series, and their hopes of extending their winning streak in Australia to four successive series triumphs, alive. For them to stand a chance, they will need significant improvements in the batting line-up that has been dismissed for under 200 in their last six Test innings. They've spent the build-up working on both technique and mindset and maintain the mantra that if they can just give their "best in the world" - as Dean Elgar calls them - attack something to defend, they'll be in the driving seat.
Australia's bowlers won't take kindly to effectively being called second (or perhaps even third) best and, having already rolled South Africa twice in Brisbane, will back themselves to challenge them again. On paper and experience, their batting is vastly stronger than South Africa's and even though they relied on one innings - Travis Head's - to take the opening match, they'll want to tick off a second success this summer, well before they get to Sydney. Australia have not lost a Test series since December 2021 and have only lost one Test in this WTC cycle.
Australia WWWLW (last five completed matches, most recent first) South Africa LLLWW
In the spotlight
David Warner will be capped for the 100th time at the MCG, an occasion that may have seemed unlikely when he made his debut on the back of his reputation as a white-ball basher in 2011, and unlikelier still after his last series against South Africa, in 2018. He is one of Australia's boldest players, on and off the field, and heads towards this major milestone without much form. Since scoring his last hundred in January 2020, Warner has played 15 Tests, scored 678 runs, including two nineties and a 50, and averages 26.07. In 2022, he averages just 20.61, and there are questions about how much longer he will keep playing the longest format. The answer may come at the MCG.
Given South Africa's batting woes, it seems cruel to single out one player but Sarel Erwee must be eager to put in another score of significance, especially after fellow openers Tony de Zorzi and Jordan Hermann piled on the runs in the domestic four-day competition back home. Erwee has not gone past 26 in his last six innings but has only scored one hundred and one fifty in his eight Tests. That's not too bad a return, especially considering the conditions South Africa have played in, but he will know they've dropped openers for less.
Pat Cummins confirmed the XI on Christmas Day with hometown cult hero Scott Boland retaining his place. A tough decision was actually avoided with Josh Hazlewood making his own call that he wasn't quite ready for a return after his side strain.
Australia: 1 David Warner, 2 Usman Khawaja, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Pat Cummins (capt), 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Scott Boland
South Africa had finalised their XI on Christmas Eve, but the only thing they were willing to give away was that any changes would be made in the line-up, not the team composition. That means they will continue with a 6-5 split, allowing all four specialist quicks and the spinner to take the field and have not been drawn into lengthening their under-fire batting line-up. If a switch happens, it's likely to be in the top three where Rassie van der Dussen, who returned from a broken finger in Brisbane, could make way for Theunis de Bruyn.
South Africa (possible): 1 Dean Elgar (capt), 2 Sarel Erwee, 3 Rassie van der Dussen/Theunis de Bruyn 4 Temba Bavuma, 5 Khaya Zondo, 6 Kyle Verreynne (wk), 7 Marco Jansen, 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Anrich Nortje, 11 Lungi Ngidi
Pitch and conditions
The Gabba was given a below average rating for extra bounce and occasional excessive seam movement and inconsistent bounce, and the MCG produced a low-scoring Test last year. So, what are the odds on another bowler-friendly surface? Less than you'd think, it seems. The general consensus is that this MCG pitch will do a little less than its 2021 avatar, with both teams hopeful it will produce a good contest between bat and ball. Two days before the Test, South Africa's speedster Anrich Nortje said he expected good pace and bounce but not as much sideways movement as Brisbane.
The Test is set to start in hot and humid conditions. Melbourne is forecast to be 32 and 36 degrees on days one and two, with the possibility of some showers on the opening morning, before a wetter third day will give way to cooler temperatures on the last two days.
Stats and trivia
Both Warner and Elgar are within sight of milestones after beginning their international careers at the Under-19 World Cup in 2006. Warner is 78 runs away from 8000 Test runs and will become the eighth Australia to reach the landmark, while Elgar needs 24 runs to reach 5000 Test runs. He will be the eighth South African to get there.
Usman Khawaja needs 34 runs for 4000 in Tests
South Africa have played 12 Tests at the MCG, and won three. Since readmission, they have played five Tests at the venue and only lost two, with two draws and their famous 2008 victory.
"There would have been a part of everyone that would've felt a little bit aggrieved if Scott missed out." Pat Cummins on Scott Boland
"We will try and get a lunch in somewhere but it's obviously a PG-rated lunch. If the game was on the 28th, it might have been a bit different." South Africa are keeping it clean this Christmas Day, says Dean Elgar