Australia's spearhead Mitchell Starc has got his wish to take part in the final Test of the Ashes series after he was passed fit to play at the SCG despite the bruised heel that kept him out of the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne.
The selectors confirmed Starc's return in place of Jackson Bird as the only change to the team held to a draw at the MCG, and his captain Steven Smith indicated that the hosts were still mindful of the need to ensure that the left-armer was as fit as possible for the Test series against South Africa in March and April. To that end the selection chairman Trevor Hohns has stated that Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins can all expect to be rested at various points of the ODI series that follows the SCG match.
"I think the break he's had from bowling has helped his heel heal," Smith said of Starc. "It's coming along nicely so he's confident and you've also got to take the player's word sometimes. Hopefully he gets through and he's fine.
"[My advice is] make sure you're completely fit and don't be doing further damage. We've obviously got some one-dayers after this and Twenty20s and an important series in South Africa as well. So that was the conversation I had after the Perth Test match - we've wrapped up the series, which is great and we want to continue winning, that's important, but you're a key member of our line-up and don't do further damage because we need you in South Africa."
Starc and the rest of the bowlers have been encouraged by the sight of a well-grassed SCG pitch, the first for the new curator/ground manager combination of Adam Lewis and Justin Groves, who indicated the trust in control of the ground was committed to keeping a natural wicket block rather than moving to drop-ins. "We've made it to be a traditional SCG pitch," Groves said. "It will break up towards the end, the factor of the weather does come into it, but that's the way we've prepared the pitch.
"We're very happy with our square at the moment, it's come through the football season very well, we've got a very good coverage of grass throughout the whole square. We've got a very good team and the guys know what they're doing, so there's no reason to change that moving forward. We're confident with where our square's at and how we can produce it."
'Play Starc only if 100% fit' - McGrath
Former Australia bowler Glenn McGrath discusses whether Mitchell Starc should play in the final Ashes Test and evaluates the form of Cameron Bancroft and Usman Khawaja
Smith has been the centre of attention entering his home Test match, given his stellar recent record that has put him on the batting rung immediately below that of Donald Bradman. Having shrugged off a bout of back soreness, he is eager to put together another long innings in Sydney, as part of a team seeking to secure a 4-0 shut out of England.
"It's been nice, I'm batting well, I'm feeling really good at the crease," Smith said. "For me it's just ensuring I don't get too far ahead of myself. If you walk out there and expect you're going to get runs the game can bite you pretty quickly. It's just ensuring I'm hungry each time I go to the middle, start really well, do my basics really well, have my routines that I go through and don't get too far ahead of myself because it comes back to bite your pretty quickly when you do that.
"The guys are really motivated to come out here. The Sydney Test, the pink Test match in its 10th anniversary now, it's a special occasion, particularly for all of the guys from NSW, there's quite a few in the line-up. We don't get the opportunity to play as often as we like in Shield cricket. Every opportunity we get to play on this ground is special. It's another Ashes Test match, guys don't need more motivation. It's a great opportunity to try and win this Test match and win this series 4-0."
Two Australian batsmen enter the match with some doubts about their places in the team. Neither Usman Khawaja nor Cameron Bancroft have performed to the level they had hoped, and due to the Big Bash League will get precious little opportunity to play any more first-class cricket before the South Africa touring squad is named. Smith, however, spoke positively of their prospects for runs in Sydney to shore up their tenures.
"They probably haven't had the strongest of summers that they would have liked. Watching them play I think they're batting well," Smith said. "It'll be great if they could get a score in this Test match and help us win this Test match. South Africa is still a fair way away, lots can happen between now and then. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."