Full house expected but swing may be hard to find

All the talk is of a Test record crowd of 100,000 at the MCG on Boxing Day. This probably ignores Eden Gardens, Calcutta, where they have hung off the rafters in the past and audiences have been assessed at approaching 120,000.

But there is a difference between official and unofficial estimates and MCG, still a concrete basin, is swish now, done up to the nines for the Commonwealth Games a few years back. The tautness of the series, the prospect of good weather, the occasion, has convinced the ground authorities that they can match an AFL Finals Day capacity.

It is a uniform bowl these days, the notorious Bay 13 where all the gaudy larrikins once gathered to put the fear of God into the oppo vanished. Their successors, however, know its rough location and England can expect to be given some welcome (hostile, that is).

The tourists' record at the MCG is their second best in Australia, next to Sydney. They have won 19 and lost 27 of the 53 matches there. Perhaps it is slightly to their advantage that the final two Tests are being played at the grounds.

For all the shrill reporting about the likelihood of doctored pitches post-Perth, the prosaic truth, always difficult to grasp for some misguided fools, is that the MCG is all but beyond the practice. MCG curator Cameron Hodgkins said that because he was fairly cautious he always gave himself a couple of options.

"MCG has never been fast and bouncy," he said. "It is more a wicket that offers a little bit up front and is quite flat towards the end of the match. Towards the end of the tour match it became pretty obvious that my first option wouldn't be ideal for a Test match and I was able to go to what I thought would be a better surface.

"I haven't spoken to anyone from Cricket Australia since the middle of the winter. It was an entirely personal thing and it was something I did two weeks ago, so it wasn't a spur of the moment move because of anything that happened in the last week. On the Waca's worst day it would still be faster and bouncier than anything that we normally turn out."

The last three England victories have been significant now that the Test is later in the Ashes calendar. Twelve years ago, they won by 12 runs when Dean Headley had his best Test figures of 6 for 44. In 1982-83, the margin was three runs when the present chairman of selectors, Geoff Miller, took a rebound catch at slip to end a 10th-wicket partnership of 80.

But the most significant was in 1986-87 when England won the Boxing Day match by an innings after Chris Broad's third hundred of the series. With it came the Ashes.

They can do so again here and perhaps the most significant of Hodgkins' comments bearing in mind the Mitchell Johnson factor was: "We haven't been getting a lot of swing here."

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