Cricket: Christmas on hold as Ashes heats up
Australia have stepped up their preparation for the fourth test by making nets on Christmas Day compulsory.
Normally, net sessions on December 25 are voluntary for Australia as players juggle training with spending time with their families. But the importance of this Test and the fact that several members of their batting line-up are short of runs have forced the Australian management to increase their workload with a short net session before the traditional players' Christmas lunch at Melbourne's Crown Casino.
The decision has significance for Ricky Ponting because he will have to prove his fitness for the fourth Test. He will now face the full force of the Australian attack made up of four quick bowlers fighting to retain their places ahead of left-arm spinner Michael Beer.
Ponting is unlikely to train before Christmas Day as he continues his recovery from a small fracture to the little finger of his left hand sustained during the Perth Test.
The Australian selectors yesterday added Usman Khawaja, the highly rated New South Wales batsman, to their squad as cover for Ponting.
"We are confident Ricky will be available," said chairman of selectors Andrew Hilditch. "Through an abundance of caution, we have named Khawaja on standby. Usman richly deserves this opportunity following his excellent form at domestic level last season and continuing this season."
Khawaja (24) was born in Pakistan but moved to Australia as a seven-year-old. If he plays at the MCG he will become the first Muslim to represent Australia in Test cricket.
He has emerged as the standout talent of a group of young Australian batsmen but struggled against England earlier in the tour when playing for Australia 'A', scoring 13 and nought in Hobart. He was particularly unsettled by a hostile spell of bowling from Ajmal Shahzad and was dismissed in the second innings by Tim Bresnan, who is expected to replace Steve Finn for the Melbourne Test. Khawaja is the leading run-scorer in Sheffield Shield cricket this season with 598 at 74.75, which contrasts sharply with Ponting, who has scored only 83 runs in his six Ashes innings. The left-hander toured England last summer as part of the Australia squad for the Test series against Pakistan but did not make an appearance.
England crossed Australia, travelling from Perth to Melbourne yesterday, although batting coach Graham Gooch and wicketkeeping coach Bruce French have returned home.
The performance programme squad have also flown back to England, leaving the Test squad without back-up players to call upon in the event of injury.
England will not start their preparations for the fourth Test until Christmas Eve. They are expected to have nets on Christmas Day but the management have given the players an extended break with their families following the early conclusion of the third Test on Sunday.
The decision to rest the England players comes after more than six weeks on the road and with several weary bowlers in the side. James Anderson is struggling with a side strain and Finn looked jaded in Perth.
Long-range weather forecasts for the Sydney area suggest that the fifth Test will be hit by heavy rain, making the result in Melbourne crucial for both teams. Australia have to win the series to regain the Ashes.
Early forecasts have stated there is a 75pc risk of rain on the final three days of the Sydney Test, which is due to begin on January 3. (© Daily Telegraph, London)