Sydney: The New Year’s cricket Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground is one of the great fixtures on the Australian sporting calendar but this year it will be heavily overshadowed by the bushfire catastrophe unfolding around the country.
While there was never any chance of any of the hundreds of blazes raging around the country reaching the leafy suburbs of Sydney where the SCG has sat for 171 years, the smoke from the deadly conflagrations is a different matter.
The skies were clear on Thursday when the hosts and New Zealand made their final preparations for the third and final Test of the series but there is a very real prospect of thick smoke halting play at some point after the five-day contest gets underway on Friday.
“We won’t be putting the players’ health at risk, nor will we be putting the health of match officials, or fans at the match at risk,” Cricket Australia chief Kevin Roberts said at the ground.
“This is quite a unique situation but we’re as confident as we can be that we’ve got the right expertise around us and that good judgement will be exercised and the safety of everyone at this great ground will be put first.
“We need to be treating this like rain delays if we have smoke delays.” Temperatures are forecast to soar above 40 degrees Celsius along the south coast on Saturday, bringing the prospect of renewed firefronts to add to the around 200 current blazes and a possible increase in smoke.
A domestic Twenty20 match in Canberra was abandoned because of bushfire smoke on December 21.
The ultimate decision over whether to suspend play rests with the match officials, who have the discretion to call the players off the field if the air is considered hazardous or visibility is greatly reduced.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison drew flak on Wednesday when he suggested the beleaguered nation would be “inspired” by the match and Test captain Tim Paine articulated more modest hopes on Thursday.
“It’s maybe an opportunity for us to provide a distraction for people and a bit of happiness if we can by playing a brand of cricket that Australians can be proud of,” Paine said.
New Zealand last played a New Year’s Test in Sydney in 1974 and the tourists would have been hoping to pitch up at the SCG in much better shape than they have done.
The three-match series was lost after heavy defeats in Perth and Melbourne and a flu-like bug has ripped through the squad this week putting captain Kane Williamson and batsman Henry Nicholls in doubt for the match.
The Black Caps have already lost pacemen Trent Boult and Lockie Ferguson to injury on this tour and they can ill-afford any weakening of their batting in the face of Australia’s fearsome bowling attack.
The pace of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson combined with the guile of off spinner Nathan Lyon has proved irresistible in four home Tests against Pakistan and New Zealand this year.
Cricket great Glenn McGrath, whose breast cancer foundation is the main charity partner for the Test, said he thought the current bowlers were now on a par with the much feared attack he once formed with Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Shane Warne.
“It’s as good a bowling attack as we’ve had,” McGrath said on Thursday.
“A lot of people have said New Zealand have been disappointing, but I think a lot of that’s to do with how our bowlers have bowled.”