Boost for Boxing Day but will broadcasters stump up $50 million?

Melbourne's grip on staging this year's Boxing Day Test has strengthened because of tumbling coronavirus cases and a new contract to lock in the immediate future of the showpiece event is imminent.

As cricket's broadcast rights battle heads into a critical phase with Seven West Media and Foxtel scheduled to make their first payment of the new season on Tuesday, the future of the sport's showcase Test became a point of interest.

The Melbourne Cricket Club, the Victorian government and Cricket Australia have yet to broker a new contract for the Test to remain in Melbourne – a one-year extension has expired – and Victorian Sports Minister Martin Pakula muddied the waters on Monday when he claimed CA was in negotiations with even the Board of Control for Cricket in India about the event's future.



"We have an agreement with Cricket Australia, the MCG has an agreement with Cricket Australia, for it to be played at the MCG this year. We are working with Cricket Australia on a longer-term deal," Pakula said.

"The constraint is, Cricket Australia's arrangement with the International Cricket Council about how long they have an agreement for the Boxing Day Test to be in Australia for. At the moment, there is an agreement, as I recall, for the Boxing Day Test to be an Australian event until 2022. And CA are in discussions with the ICC and BCCI about extending that arrangement but that's an ongoing conversation. I think you might be aware our friends in South Africa have been coveting that time slot for a while now."

CA later said while no agreement with the MCC had yet been announced, a new deal was expected to be confirmed within weeks.

Cricket South Africa have agreed to play the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne in 2022-23, having not played on that date here since 2008 because of a desire to stage their own festive-period Test.

Sydney and Adelaide are ready to swoop on this year's clash should Melbourne be forced to cede it because of COVID-19 issues. CA is close to releasing a revised summer schedule, the delay a major point of frustration with Seven and Foxtel, and the MCG will be named as host of its now traditional event, pending lockdown measures come November.

The MCC is considering a proposal that could have the MCG filled to 25 per cent of its capacity. That would equate to crowds of about 25,000.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said on Monday the preferred option was to have crowds at the Test and at the Australian Open and rejected suggestions the events would have to be moved.

That this won't be, as Andrews stated, an "ordinary" summer because of the need for bio-secure hubs is the backbone of Seven and Foxtel's bid to have their rights fees slashed this season, arguing it will be a diluted campaign for several reasons.

Seven is due to pay $25 million and Foxtel $33 million on Tuesday. Broadcast sources suggested Seven and Foxtel were strongly considering making a part payment or no payment, even though CA has delivered on content in that the networks will televise the women's white-ball series between Australia and New Zealand in Brisbane in a fortnight.

Neither network would publicly comment but will continue to broadcast matches even if they are in dispute with CA. That would only change if a contract was terminated, something Seven has threatened.

A key point in claims by Seven and Foxtel that this summer's Big Bash League will be weakened is because an extended Test squad will be needed for the four Tests against India as a result of bio-security measures, for quarantine issues will likely mean fresh players cannot be brought into a bubble once the series starts.

Seven and Fox have sought clarification from CA about how big a Test squad will be needed but they say the governing body has yet to provide an answer. However, a CA spokesman pointed to Justin Langer's comments last week, where the coach-selector suggested an extra three players would be needed.

That could mean a 17-man squad, if CA, as it did last year for the opening Test against Pakistan, picked a 14-man party. Those outside a 12-man squad needed for game day could potentially include Ashton Agar (reserve spinner), Michael Neser (fifth fast bowler), Mitch Marsh (allrounder), Marcus Harris (reserve opener) and Usman Khawaja (reserve floating batsman). All five have important roles with their BBL teams but CA insists the BBL will feature several major big names and overseas stars.

Potential Australian 17-man Test squad versus India:

XI: David Warner, Joe Burns, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Matthew Wade , Travis Head, Tim Paine, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon

12th man: James Pattinson

Extended squad: Ashton Agar, Michael Neser, Mitch Marsh, Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja

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