The Long Handle – 4th Ashes Test preview and tips – December 26-30, MCG

So there’s life in the old dog yet. Michael Hussey officially reclaims his Mr. Cricket title and leads Australia to a hard fought win – after being robbed of a first innings top score by everyone’s new favourite player, Mitchell Johnson. The Long Handle has always rated him! Heady stuff, and the allegedly rampant sledging in the game has renewed Australia’s fight and the public interest. The media have responded by trying to drum up anything resembling a sledging story – even if they have to blatantly manufacture it. There’s about as much to it as a Power Wristband. Thankfully, The Melbourne press has eased up while they try and work out which version of Nick Riewoldt looks sadder – when he loses a grand final or when he has nude pics publicly distributed..

When we finally get a chance to get back to the cricket, we’ll find some relieved Aussie selectors issuing huge sighs of relief that Johnson reverted to his best form in Perth. Possibly also tapping some curators on the shoulder to let them know that Australia’s best bowling attack has four pacemen in it, if you believe the Fleet Street press. That sort of thing won’t do any good in Sydney, but the drop in wicket in Melbourne certainly seems to be favouring the quicks of late and looked very green in early viewings. All the spin out of the ACB and the curator is towards a balanced wicket, however that should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, four pacemen are less likely to be selected here than in Perth, so one of Beer, Hilfenhaus or Siddle will take a seat. Siddle has his big mouth, Ponting and home ground on side, so despite Hilfenhaus’ superior form, he may be the one to give way on this pitch if the selectors opt for spin.

With the bat, Australia is unlikely to make changes despite Ponting’s much-publicized finger fracture. Usman Khawaja has been putting his fracture-free hand up with strong performances in Shield cricket, and was rewarded with being added to the squad, for what that is worth. However Ponting would need to be in a hospital bed handcuffed to the post to miss this match. Say what you like about his form or captaincy, but his toughness cannot come into question. Simon Katich has been recovering well from his Achilles problem, but he won’t be fit for the 4th Test so we will be subjected to more of the comedic stylings of Phil Hughes at opener.

As for the Brits, injury clouds over the heads of Jimmy Anderson (side strain, will play) and Steve Finn (calf, general tiredness) have been the major stories. Anderson is probably relieved about fitness questions after the pasting he’s received from all-comers about not taking that single. Finn is a shakier prospect – while he’s taken wickets, they’ve been expensive and the feeling is he’s been well and truly worked out by the Australian batsmen. Don’t be shocked if we see the much more vanilla Tim Bresnan come into the side in his place. Any other changes will revolve around hiding Paul Collingwood further down the order – if changes are made, the in-form Ian Bell will bat at five with Collingwood dropping to six.

Melbourne’s pitch will be a slower-paced affair than that of the WACA, even if a greentop is rolled out. Sheer pace won’t take a lot of wickets here, but the crafty swing bowling of Hilfenhaus will be sorely missed if he isn’t selected, and In The Pocket likes him as a bit of a dark horse option to take the most first innings wickets and other bowling performance markets if selected. As much as the Jimmy Anderson option for England bowling markets is getting a little tiresome, this is the pitch that should suit him best of all the wickets he’ll see in Australia, and he remains both the Poms’ best and most consistent bowler. But that’s as long as he doesn’t feel the pressure of leading the sledging – perhaps he’ll leave that role to Kevin Pietersen (who relishes the chat). In batting markets, backing anyone other than Hussey right now is a real roll of the dice. Watson is his only real competition (despite Johnson winning first innings’ honours in Perth) and his odds are prohibitive due to his status as an opener.

As for the result of this Test and the overall series, Australia has won on a wicket that favoured them, and England on a wicket that favoured either them or the draw. Melbourne is the most evenly balanced of pitches where either side could potentially gain a result, or end up with a draw. As anyone on the east coast would know, some shabby summer weather has been par for the course so far. The seven-day forecast has showers and wind likely for the first couple of days, and the meteorologists’ each-way bet – “Mostly Sunny” – for the rest. Under such circumstances, the value presented for the draw is hard to pass up.

The Long Handle’s plays for the 4th Test:
Draw @ 3.50 (multiple sites)
Jimmy Anderson ENG most wickets 1st Innings @ 3.25 (Centrebet)
Michael Hussey Australia most runs 1st innings @ 5.25 (Centrebet)

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