The first test cricket of 2009 kicks off on Friday night/Saturday morning, depending on where you are in the world. Bangladesh hope to kick on from their hugely impressive, but ultimately unsuccessful run chase in the first test against Sri Lanka. And in Sydney South Africa and Australia play one of the least dead dead-rubbers in the history of the game.
Bangladesh v Sri Lanka, Chittagong
Bangladesh became the third team to get near to or above 400 in the fourth innings in the space of a month although they were chasing 521 so lost the game. It must be hugely frustrating for Bangladesh supporters that their team occasionally produces something magnificent but never seem to translate it into any tangible long-term progress. They beat Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup, Australia in Cardiff in 2005 and reached the latter stages of the 2007 World Cup. In between times however, they have been woeful and this is reflected in their record. They will hope that this time, they can push on the better things and that the mercurial Mohammad Ashraful can reproduce the form he showed in the first test.
Sri Lanka meanwhile have quietly turned themselves into a real force. While all the attention has been on India and South Africa of late, Sri Lanka have moved seamlessly up to 4th in the test rankings. They comprehensively defeated an Indian side which has beaten Australia and England and have unearthed a real gem in Ajantha Mendis. Muttiah Muralitharan ploughs tirelessly on. Individually however, attention in this match will be on the unassuming skipper, Mahela Jayawardene. He needs 74 runs to become the first Sri Lankan to pass 8,000 runs and it will be appropriate if he achieves it in this, his 100th test match.
Australia v South Africa, Sydney
Well where do you start? If South Africa win this game, they will take the number 1 spot in the rankings which Australia have occupied for all but 8 months of the past 13 years. They will inflict Australia’s first home whitewash for 120 years, and they will take the momentum into the return series where they will aim to give a good kicking to an adversary whom they have already knocked down.
All of the above would have seemed fantasy a year ago but there is now a real possibility that South Africa, desperate to avenge years of pain against their old rivals, can achieve their goals. Australia have picked a painfully inexperienced bowling attack led by Mitchell Johnson who, highly impressive though he has been, has only 17 tests to his name. He is the main man now and must succeed in that role where Brett Lee failed if Australia are to take 20 wickets. So far in the series, they have taken just 25 of a possible 40.
In the batting department, Matthew Hayden must repay the selectors’ loyalty and remember which end of the bat to hold and runs are needed from Mike Hussey. With a debutant batting at 6 in Andrew McDonald, senior players need to take the burden of run-scoring off the shoulders of Ricky Ponting who has been wonderful in this series with the bat.
South Africa have no such concerns and have picked an unchanged team. All their key players are firing and the lesser lights are contributing sturdy support. It should be a cracker and I could be in for a few late nights listening to Bill Lawry, Tony Greig, Richie Benaud et al get thoroughly but justifiably over-excited in the commentary box. Bring it on.
by Stuart Peel