Sydney’s long wait continues. Last time the Ashes was still up for grabs by the time the series reached the SCG, Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting were still playing for England. The year was 1995, Australia held the urn and had won the first two Tests of the series in Brisbane and Melbourne; the drawn Sydney Test ensured they retained the Ashes before the tour moved on to Adelaide and Perth. But since then, the Ashes in Australia has always finished at the SCG, and although there have been times when the series could still have been drawn in Sydney, the urn had already been retained (by Australia in 1999 and England in 2011). Maybe one day Sydney will get another live Ashes Test. Maybe.
But if the series and the Ashes belong to Australia in 2018, that doesn’t mean this match holds no interest. England put in a strong performance at the MCG, where rain and a pitch rated “poor” by the ICC ruined any chance of a result, and the prospect of a consolation victory in Sydney does not seem as laughable as it might have in 2014. Importantly for England, Alastair Cook bounced back in Melbourne with an unbeaten 244, the highest score ever made by a visiting batsman in an MCG Test, and the highest by any opener to have carried his bat in Test history.
So, one question has been answered for England, but other questions remain. This could be an important Test for several England players. Mark Stoneman and James Vince have both made useful contributions during this series without nailing down their places. Moeen Ali has had a disappointing series with bat and ball, and could really use a productive finish to the series, while legspinner Mason Crane will make his debut.
Australia, meanwhile, have relied heavily in this series on Steven Smith, who scored more Test runs in 2017 than any other player worldwide. New opener Cameron Bancroft is far from secure in the side but has a chance in Sydney to lock himself in for a longer stretch, while Usman Khawaja would also benefit from a strong end to an otherwise tepid campaign.
Australia DWWWW (last five matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Cameron Bancroft started his Test career well, with an unbeaten 82 on debut in Australia’s victory at the Gabba, but since then has managed nothing better than three scores in the 20s. It places Bancroft in an interesting position: with a four-Test tour of South Africa coming up in March, he is the incumbent opener, but he might not have done enough to be a certain starter come the first Test in Durban. A big score in Sydney would help; curiously, though, Bancroft has played only one of his 70 first-class games at the SCG, for scores of 22 and 6.
The legspinner Mason Crane will make his debut at the SCG, where he played a single Sheffield Shield game for New South Wales in March 2017. At 20, Crane will be the youngest specialist spinner to make his Test debut for England in 90 years, since a 19-year-old Ian Peebles played in Johannesburg in 1927. Crane is highly regarded but will hope for a more successful time of it than the England spinner who debuted at the SCG on the most recent Ashes tour – Scott Borthwick has not added to his single cap since that 2014 match.
Mitchell Starc is likely to return to the Australian side in the place of Jackson Bird after recovering well from a bruised heel to bowl on Tuesday, though the captain Steven Smith said the selectors would wait until after the hosts’ final training session on Wednesday afternoon to finalise the XI. However the presence of plenty of grass on the SCG pitch has already ruled out Ashton Agar appearing as a second spinner alongside Nathan Lyon.
Australia (probable): 1 Cameron Bancroft, 2 David Warner, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Steven Smith (capt), 5 Shaun Marsh, 6 Mitchell Marsh, 7 Tim Paine (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Pat Cummins, 10 Josh Hazlewood, 11 Nathan Lyon.
Crane has taken the place of Chris Woakes who was sent for a scan on his left side on the eve of the Test and has been ruled out. It means Tom Curran and Moeen Ali retain their places
England: 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Mark Stoneman, 3 James Vince, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Dawid Malan, 6 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Tom Curran, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Mason Crane, 11 James Anderson
Pitch and conditions
After the disappointment of an MCG pitch rated “poor” by the ICC, all eyes will be on the SCG surface this week. Adding to the interest, long-time Sydney curator Tom Parker has retired and this is not only the first Test, but also the first first-class match at the SCG that has been under the control of his successor Adam Lewis. This week, Lewis said he wanted to produce a pitch that “is going to have a bit in it for everybody”. The weather should be warm to hot for the duration of the Test, with the possibility of some rain late in the match.
Stats and trivia
Australia have lost only two SCG Tests in the past 20 years – both of them to England (in 2011 and 2003)
Steven Smith enters this match with 604 runs for the series. Only Don Bradman (810 in 1936-37 and 680 in 1946-47) and David Gower (732 in 1985) have scored more runs as captain in an Ashes series
At 35 years of age, James Anderson finished 2017 as No.1 on the ICC’s Test bowling rankings
Stuart Broad is 79 runs and two wickets away from the dual milestones of 3000 Test runs an 400 Test wickets, a double previously achieved by Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev, Shane Warne and Shaun Pollock
“It’s paramount we win this game. It’s really important to me and this squad moving into the rest of this winter, and then the summer, and build on that for four years’ time.”
“It’s been a good series personally for me but also the team as well. I think we’ve played some really good cricket, so it’d be great to end this series with a 4-0 win but we’ve still got a hard five days in front of us.”