SA's chance at hand
It will be almost impossible for the Boxing Day Test to live up to the drama of South Africa's win in Perth. So unexpected was their brilliant chase of 414 that it left both teams in a state of shock. The squads have had a few days to digest the outcome and for Australia the distaste of losing forced at least one player to be spat out. But it will take more than just personnel alterations for Ricky Ponting's men to fight back in Melbourne when the second Test begins here today. They face the challenge of turning a moderate attack into one capable of curbing South Africa's powerful batting line-up, while their own batsmen try to click back into gear.
South Africa have spent so long chasing Australia that it must be an odd feeling for them to know that they are potentially five days of good cricket from beating them in a series in Australia for the first time. An Australian victory would set up a thrilling decider in Sydney. The bookmakers still have Australia as warm favourites but the way South Africa played in Perth, it would be a brave punter to back against them.
On a side note, a strange thing happened during the week. Two days after South Africa's greatest Test victory they actually fell in the International Cricket Council's (ICC) Test rankings. The intricacies of the ranking system meant India's series-clinching draw against England was enough to nudge them ahead of South Africa, although it will almost certainly be temporary. South Africa will regain second place unless they lose both remaining Tests and if they win them both they will take the top spot from Australia.
Matthew Hayden is having one of the leaner runs of his Test career but if he could pick the perfect place to try and bounce back it would be the MCG. Hayden has made centuries in the past three Boxing Day Tests and in six of the past seven. Since 2001 he has averaged 102.40 at the venue. To get anywhere near that he will need to rediscover his form quickly. His judgement has been muddled in recent months and a strong South African pace attack will not give him an easy ride. Hayden has declared his intentions to play on; this Test more than any other might help determine for how long.
Jacques Kallis is out of form so rarely that opposition teams really need to keep him down while they have the chance. Australia couldn't do that in Perth. He entered the game with one half-century from his past 11 Test innings and went on to raise a pair of fifties that helped South Africa to a historic win. Kallis made 63 and 57 and while he was rightly overshadowed by several of his batting colleagues, it is only a matter of time before Kallis again stamps his authority on a Test.
Despite all the talk of potential personnel changes, Australia have made only one alteration to the side that lost in Perth. The off-spinner Nathan Hauritz has taken the place of the axed Jason Krejza, with Peter Siddle holding his position ahead of Ben Hilfenhaus for his first Test at his home ground in Melbourne. A knee problem hampered Andrew Symonds in the field in Perth but the problem was not considered serious enough for him to be rested for the second Test.
South Africa have named the same side that earned the remarkable win at the WACA. The only question mark was over the fitness of Ashwell Prince, whose cracked thumb kept him out of the Perth line-up. Prince was making good progress but was not considered quite ready for a return at the MCG and his replacement JP Duminy, who struck the winning runs on his Test debut, has proven a more than capable Test No. 6.
The MCG pitch is generally one of those surfaces that has something for everyone. It'll offer some early seam movement, a bit of swing and some turn later in the match. After Hayden made a century there last year he called it the toughest surface he had batted on for two years. No batsman has made a century in the two Sheffield Shield games at Melbourne this season and spin has accounted for only two wickets in those matches. That statistic is slightly disingenuous though; Victoria's primary slow bowler Bryce McGain is injured and only one spinner has been given a decent spell at the MCG this season.
AUSTRALIA: Matthew Hayden, Simon Katich, Ricky Ponting (captain), Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke, Andrew Symonds, Brad Haddin, Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Hauritz, Peter Siddle.
SOUTH AFRICA: Graeme Smith (captain), Neil McKenzie, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Mark Boucher, Morne Morkel, Paul Harris, Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini.