Australia likely to go unchanged in 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 judgment 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," he added.
"Like rain, the rules are in place to add time, to suspend play (for Tests). But what we're finding is it (smoke) comes in quick but also goes quick," Cricket Australia's head of operations Peter Roach told cricket.com.au.
"It's unlikely, we believe, it'll be there for a full day.
"We might see some challenges across that day, but we'll play it like rain or adverse weather. Time can be added on."
Temperatures are forecast to soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) along the south coast on Saturday, bringing the prospect of renewed fire fronts 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 told reporters.
Australia are unlikely to play a second spinner in the third Test against New Zealand and will probably field the same team that beat the tourists in Melbourne last week to seal the series, captain Tim Paine said on Thursday.
The Sydney Cricket Ground is the only spin-friendly Test venue in Australia and uncapped wrist spinner Mitchell Swepson was added to the squad to offer the option of a second slow bowler along with Nathan Lyon.
"We'll have a look in the morning," captain Tim Paine told reporters on Thursday.
"It's likely we'll go unchanged but it's still a possibility when we see that wicket tomorrow morning that we'd go for another spinner."
Top order batsman Marnus Labuschagne's part-time leg-spin, which has earned him 12 wickets in 13 Tests, offers Paine another option if Australia decide to stick with one specialist spinner and the SCG wicket turns towards the end of the match.
Big wins in Perth and Melbourne have given Australia an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series going into the Sydney Test, which starts on Friday.