Exciting contest on the cards

Australia, England brace up for keen battle in Boxing Day Test

At a time when Test cricket attendances are on the wane across the globe, officials have spoken of attracting a potential record crowd to cram the cauldron-like Melbourne Cricket Ground for the opening day.

Melbourne's Boxing Day Test remains one of the great carnivals in sports-mad Australia and the hosts’ emphatic 267-run win at Perth has given the contest additional spice, leaving the five-Test series hanging in the balance at 1-1. The hosts, sparked by a swing-bowling masterclass from the enigmatic Mitchell Johnson that set up victory at the WACA, now claim the momentum and the lion's share of confidence.

Bravado aside, Australia face the stiffer challenge of the two sides, needing at least a victory and a draw in the last two Tests to wrest back the Ashes.  England, who won 2-1 in the home series last year, need only draw level after the final Test in Sydney to become the first side in 24 years to bring home the Ashes. Australia have won four of their past five matches against the tourists at the MCG, including an innings and 99-run thrashing four years ago.

With the Ashes already sewn up, some 89,000 people at the MCG witnessed legspinner Shane Warne take his 700th wicket on day one of the 2006 test to help the hosts dismiss England cheaply on the way to victory. Four years on, Australia's failure to unearth a quality spinner to replace the retired Warne could prove damning on a pitch that traditionally offers turn on the first day and again later in the match as it wears.

The curator's choice of a grassier drop-in pitch sparked allegations of skulduggery by British media, who smelt a plot to favour Australia's seamers, but if anything, the track is likely to be tailor-made for England's Graeme Swann.

Australia have far less certainty about their own spinner, Michael Beer, who was picked in a 12-man squad for Perth and left to carry the drinks as selectors opted for a four-pronged pace attack. The uncapped Beer has been named in the 12 again for Melbourne but has just a handful of first-class matches under his belt and an average of around 40.

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