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Cricket news - As Canberra hosts maiden Test, Australia aim to end low-key summer on a high

Against a depleted Sri Lankan side, Australia have their best chance to register a 2-0 win

Canberra has to be perhaps the most unremarkable country capital to enter in the whole world. The locals will argue that it's just because you got here by train, and that most Canberrians don't use the railways much, hence the barren welcome. The rather ambitiously-yet-cutely named Canberra Xplorer is a nostalgia-ridden ride as it chugs past swathes of lush countryside - some parts very Australian in terms of their vastness and others more English in nature - before dropping you off at arguably the quietest central station around. Except save an efficient taxi queue, there's little activity around, and it takes you at least 15 minutes into the cab-ride to witness some sort of buzz, closer to the city centre.

Just for the record, the first structure of note that comes to view is a pagoda-like erection that juts out from the top of Black Mountain, which you're told is the biggest telecommunication tower in the city. Canberra has still got a really good vibe and has perhaps the cosiest feel among all other "capitals" in the country.

But the entry into the latest Test centre in Australia is kind of what the series against Sri Lanka has been - lots of potential but unremarkable to say the least so far. The Gabba Test finished literally before it really even got going, in terms of competition between the two sides. There were individual contributions of note, Pat Cummins' spell in particular and Jhye Richardson's debut apart from a couple of maiden 80s of the summer for the home team, but overall the Test lacked in overall quality. The pink ball and generous help off the Gabba pitch only made it tougher for the two inexperienced batting line-ups. As the Manuka Oval becomes only the 11th venue in this vast country to host a Test match in around 142 years since the sport was played here for the first time, there is still a lot at stake for the two teams. Australia will want to, and need to, finish their otherwise disappointing summer on a series-winning note while Sri Lanka will hope to at least show up for the contest unlike in Brisbane, even if they rarely seem to go into an overseas Test these days with any sort of confidence to expect a win.

The Australian team had a lot to be pleased about their performance at the Gabba. Though plenty of work still remains in terms of getting their team in order, there were flashes of what they might be able to produce once Steve Smith and David Warner come back - which as much as you try will continue to be a disclaimer that'll accompany every line written on Australian cricket. And their batsmen ,in particular, didn't mind sweating it out in the nets and indulging in intense one-on-one sessions with the team's support staff on Thursday.

Marnus Labuschagne was the busiest, as he spent half-hour working on his batting against spin in particular before spending an additional 30 minutes with Sridharan Sriram on becoming more consistent with his leg-spin. Unlike at the Gabba, he came in for a lot of praise with the spin consultant. Joe Burns, meanwhile, was involved in a lengthy stint with batting coach Graeme Hick as the former English batsman worked relentlessly on getting the opener to get his shape right while facing length deliveries that pitch and seam away from him - like the one from Suranga Lakmal that got him in Brisbane. Hick even got Burns to face a few deliveries with a bat, half-the-width of a normal one, just so that he was making sure the bat was coming down straighter and that he was in a more well-balanced position at the time of delivery. Usman Khawaja and David Saker were working on a few things too with the bowling coach at one point suggesting that a cross-batted shot against the length ball from the seamers, and the sweep shot against spin were risk-free shots if the ball wasn't doing much. Skipper Tim Paine preferred some self-coaching in the nets after a few throwdowns from Hick while Kurtis Patterson did the same, while also providing some self-commentary including shouting "bad cricket" after having mistimed a shot against a full-toss from a net bowler.

In contrast, Sri Lanka have been a team in disarray since arriving here. And there's of course never a dull day with Sri Lankan cricket in recent times. A day after head coach Chandika Hathurusinghe was stripped off his selectorial powers, their Thursday was spent hastily finding new players to make up for the rapidly dwindling number in their squad, as well as flying in a new batting coach in Avishka Gunawardene. Considering that they'll be in South Africa in just over two weeks against an even more potent attack, they could well look at Canberra's maiden Test has to be about redemption at least if not recovery. As Test cricket in Australia breaks new barriers, the visitors could just start with trying to break free.

When: Australia v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, February 1 to 5, 10.30 am Local, 05.00 am IST

Where: Manuka Oval, Canberra

What to expect: The first thing everyone tells you about Canberra is how cold it gets here during the winter. "One of the few places in the country with sub-zero temperatures, so much so that even parliament gets called off often because it's too cold," you're told. But on Thursday, all conversations in Canberra are about the heat that's left everyone in the capital running for cover. But there's some respite over the next two days with temperatures expected to be in the mid-20s, and everyone from the barista in the cafe next to Manuka Oval to every local at the ground is keener to talk about it. There is a faint forecast for thunderstorms over the weekend, but considering we're at what Canberrians at least consider the best drying ground in Australia, the Test shouldn't be affected too much.

There might be some respite for the Lankans too in Canberra. Unlike at the Gabba, the pitch here is not expected to provide a disconcerting bounce to the Aussies, and "flat track" has been the buzzword since the teams landed here. So out of depth did their batsmen seem against Australia's attack on an admittedly tough pitch in Brisbane that captain Dinesh Chandimal could be pardoned for repeatedly referring to how different the 22 yards will be here. There is however a greenish tinge to the wicket, which might just be cosmetic grass laid out to help the pitch hold together under the searing sun.

The Australian captain meanwhile has revealed to be working on his toss techniques, and even joked about maybe trying to flip the coin with his left hand to bring his wretched run with tosses to an end. And the Lankans will be hoping it continues for one more Test, for batting first will be their only recourse to making a match of it, or so you feel for now.

Team News:

Australia: There was some talk of a few changes to the playing XI in the days leading up to Canberra. Mitchell Starc and Usman Khawaja were the main targets of those discussions, with many suggesting the two seniormost members of the side be given a rest, if not be dropped, keeping in mind the tougher challenges that lie ahead in England later this year. But like they have all summer, the selectors have doggedly backed their experienced mainstays, with Paine for the umpteenth time suggesting that they were just "hoping" that Starc and Khawaja come good and that they were just a spell or "half-hour batting" away from "being one of their best players". Joe Burns also gets a reprieve while Marcus Stoinis might have to wait till the Ashes for a debut, which leaves Mitchell Marsh's chances of making it to England up in the air.

Unchanged Playing XI: Joe Burns, Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Travis Head, Kurtis Patterson, Tim Paine (c/wk), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Jhye Richardson.

Sri Lanka: Let's face it. This is not the best period that Sri Lankan cricket has ever had. But rarely have their problems on and off the field compounded to such an extent that they find themselves literally with no squad to pick from for a Test. Already three of their fast bowlers originally picked for the tour have flown back - Nuwan Pradeep leaving even before the Brisbane Test commenced. And their key new-ball bowler Suranga Lakmal having woken up with stiffness in his back on Thursday, leaves them with the untoward task of going in with two pacers fresh off the flight, which would make Kasun Rajitha the most experienced seamer in what will be his fourth Test. Lakmal's unavailability though might open the doors for a unique batting line-up which starts and ends with Karunaratnes (Dimuth at the top and new-comer Chamika at the bottom).

Probable XI: Dimuth Karunaratne, Lahiru Thirimanne, Dinesh Chandimal (c), Kusal Mendis, Roshen Silva, Dananjaya de Silva, Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Dilruwan Perera, Suranga Lakmal/Chamika Karunaratne, Vishwa Fernando, Kasun Rajitha

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