|Ground:||Melbourne Cricket Ground, Melbourne|
|Player:||SK Warne, RT Ponting, JM Buchanan, A Flintoff, DAG Fletcher, GO Jones, CMW Read, GD McGrath, PD Collingwood|
|Event:||England in Australia 2006/07|
DateLine: 23rd December 2006
The farewell appearances of cricketing great Shane Warne threatens to sidetrack Australia's bid to chase history against England in the fourth Ashes Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground from Tuesday.
The master leg-spinner's shock decision this week to retire from Test cricket after the fifth Sydney Test next month has dominated the lead-up to the Boxing Day contest, in part because Australia have already regained the Ashes. Warne, 37, is poised to become the first bowler to capture 700 Test wickets in the fourth Test, his 144th. He needs just one wicket before his hometown fans to achieve that target.
Warne, who has tormented England batsmen with 186 wickets in 34 Tests over 13 years, is expected to receive an emotional send-off in Melbourne and Sydney. The Australians meanwhile are trying to emulate Warwick Armstrong team's 5-0 Ashes sweep here 86 years ago. The showpiece Test of Australian cricket is likely to create a new world record for a single day's attendance. All tickets have been sold for Boxing Day to surpass the 90,800 for the second day of the fifth Test against the West Indies at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in February 1961.
Warne says the job is half-finished as Ricky Ponting's Aussies eye a humiliating series sweep. "As far as I'm concerned we've got two Test matches to play and I just want to finish the series on a high," Warne said. "I think if we can win 5-0 that would be a fantastic achievement for a great team."
But coach John Buchanan is anxious the commotion over Warne's exit may prove an unwanted distraction. "With a range of news around us it might be a bit of a distraction but hopefully we are a better team than that," Buchanan said Friday. "That's something we will talk about at training - dealing with the distractions that will continue over the next two Test matches, and really try to finish on a high note. Our mission here is not only to win the Ashes but also establish a huge gap between us and England."
Australia took just 15 days to seize the Ashes, rebounding spectacularly from last year's series loss in England where they relinquished them after 16 years. The much-anticipated series has been a huge let-down with Australia romping to massive wins over Freddie Flintoff's England team in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. Australia have only been dismissed twice in six innings, highlighting England's inability to take 20 wickets after terminating the Australians' innings eight times in the 2005 series.
The sorry England performance has triggered recriminations. Coach Duncan Fletcher is under intense scrutiny over the team's preparation and selection, amid conjecture that his job will be under review. One casualty is likely to be wicketkeeper Geraint Jones, who registered a pair of ducks in Perth and has scored only 63 runs at 10.50 in the series. Chris Read is expected to be behind the stumps in the fourth Test.
Skipper Flintoff is determined his side will bounce back in the Melbourne and Sydney Tests. "It hurts a lot, but we have to get over it and we've got two big Test matches still to play," he said. "There are a lot of lads who want to prove they can win a Test match in Australia and prove they can play against Australia."
The Ashes series may be over as a contest but that hasn't dampened an insatiable appetite by cricket fans. Officials are anticipating a record attendance for an entire Test. Crowds of 95,000 are likely over the opening three days' play and the record of 350,354 - set in the vast arena in the third Test of the 1936/37 Ashes series in the Don Bradman era - is under threat.
England, sensing a changing of the guard with Warne likely to be followed by great pace bowler Glenn McGrath into retirement, are looking to regroup for future Ashes battles.
"We've got another two years before we play these guys and it's kind of starting now," batsman Paul Collingwood said. "I'm sure the boys in the dressing room will want to put their hands up and see where they've gone wrong individually, and regroup and restart, starting in Melbourne."