He may may be averaging less than Mitchell Johnson and, more tellingly, nursing a broken finger that has restricted him to one-handed fielding practice, but Ricky Ponting seems certain to take his place as Australia's captain come the toss in Melbourne tomorrow night.
Ponting fractured a bone in the little finger of his left hand during the victory in the third Test in Perth and has been restricted to minimal involvement in preparation for the Boxing Day Test, but he will do everything possible to ensure his presence on the field.
"I fielded yesterday without discomfort," said Ponting. "I will bat [in the nets] on Christmas Day and see how it pulls up, but I will be very surprised if I'm not out in the middle with Andrew Strauss come Boxing Day. I am 90-10 sure of playing."
Australia, it seems, cannot imagine it any other way. "He's our leader, and we get a lot of inspiration from him," said their wicketkeeper, Brad Haddin, yesterday. "You just have to see the turnaround we had from Adelaide to Perth to see the effect he has on the cricket team. It's very important that he plays."
Ponting has played 72 successive Tests, not missing a game since October 2004, and although he has scored only 83 runs in six innings in the series, his presence remains crucial for the home side, not least given the equally miserable form (and questionable fitness) of Michael Clarke, his deputy. Ponting did not test his finger in the nets until last night, having taken a limited part in fielding drills yesterday, when he used only his right hand.
Greg Chappell's recent remarks on the captaincy only underline the desire to patch up the skipper in time for tomorrow. "There is nobody absolutely ready [to succeed him]," said Chappell, an Australian selector. "I don't think there are too many other players I'd want to put that pressure on."
England certainly expect to be facing Ponting, who has scored eight hundreds in his 34 Ashes Tests. "Knowing Ricky Ponting, the type of tough cricketer he is, I'm sure he'll be out on the field," said Ian Bell.
Ponting has at least had ample time to ponder the make-up of the side for the MCG with Chappell and the rest of the selection panel. Australia have always fielded a front-line spinner in Melbourne, yet given their successful seam barrage in Perth they may decide to break with precedent and leave Michael Beer, the 26-year-old left-arm spinner, still waiting for his debut.
Given the expected surface in Melbourne – for all the talk of conjuring up another pacy track it will be noticeably slower than the Waca – that would represent a huge gamble for a side that cannot reclaim the Ashes without a win in one of the last two games. Playing Beer would also be something of a throw of the dice, given that it would be only his eighth first-class game and first at the MCG, a ground he practised at but never played on during an anonymous spell as part of the Victoria squad.
Haddin, though, backed Beer to rise to the occasion if called on. "He's a quality spinner," said the man who would keep wicket to him. "The little I have seen of him, he likes the contest and is a very competitive bowler. He's fitted into our group very well – and we're looking forward, if he gets his opportunity, to another Australian getting a debut at Test cricket. He'll do Australia and himself proud."
With a record crowd expected in a series perfectly poised, it will be a test of players with ample experience, let alone Beer's handful of games. "It doesn't get any bigger," said Haddin, a view echoed by Bell.
He said: "It's probably one of the most exciting Test matches we're going into. Certainly, they have got some momentum going into it, there's no doubt. But out of the three Test matches, I'd say we've been playing the better cricket."
Australia (probable): R T Ponting (capt), S R Watson, P J Hughes, M J Clarke, M E K Hussey, S P D Smith, B J Haddin (wkt), M G Johnson, R J Harris, P M Siddle, BW Hilfenhaus.
England (probable): A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, P D Collingwood, M J Prior (wkt), T T Bresnan, G P Swann, J M Anderson, C T Tremlett.
Umpires A Dar (Pak) and T Hill (NZ).
Pitch report A green tinge will provide early swing for seamers before flattening as the match goes on. The pitch will be slower than those of the Waca and Brisbane.
Weather Cloudy first day with the chance of showers, but sunny for the remainder.
TV Live: Sky Sports 1, Christmas Day, 11.30pm. Highlights: Boxing Day
Odds Australia 6-4 England 7-4 Draw 9-4 (Ladbrokes).Reuse content