SECOND-GAMER Jackson Bird marked his home-town Test debut by becoming Australia's unlikely saviour after Sri Lanka showed the stomach sadly lacking in Melbourne to at least make a contest of the series finale in Sydney.
The Australians remain hot favourites to complete a series whitewash against the world No.6 but were forced to wait longer than expected before they could reap the rewards of their bold gamble at the selection table. Bird was set to sit out the final Test of the summer but a greener than usual SCG pitch persuaded selectors to unleash a four-pronged pace attack at the venue for the first time in nearly 60 years.
If not for an overrule by third umpire Nigel Llong, the 26-year-old - who had to leave the mainland for a crack at first-class cricket - would have taken a fairytale maiden five-for in just his second appearance in the baggy green cap.
''I grew up here for 24 years and it was good to have my friends and family here and do well in front of them,'' Bird said. ''I don't think I felt like I had a point to prove, it was nice to go back to my home ground.''
Although he was the seventh fast bowler picked this summer, Bird's strong start to his Test career has left him in contention to book a seat on the plane to England later this year. Sri Lanka defied modest expectations to avoid collapsing until late in the first day but if not for Bird the visitors could have posted a far more challenging first-innings than the 294 they managed after being sent in by Michael Clarke.
At 5-250 in the final session, the Sri Lankans were well placed to put pressure on Australia's new-look top order but lost 5-44 to uproot the foundations they had diligently laid. ''The odd ball was doing a little bit. If you bash the wicket you got a little bit more out of it,'' said Bird, the best of Australia's bowlers with 4-41.
''We probably bowled the right length towards the end of the day when there wasn't much movement. In the morning we didn't utilise conditions as much as we should have. At lunch we had a bit of a chat and we felt we probably bowled two sides of the wicket. [We were] a little bit short with the new ball and probably weren't patient enough. I thought in the second session we were pretty good. Towards the end of the session we built up a bit of pressure and then the last session we built up that pressure and got the wickets.''
The most inexperienced member of Australia's five-man attack, Bird was clearly the home side's most consistent performer. Whereas Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson, who both possess the raw pace lacking in Bird's game, copped some rough treatment at times, the adopted Tasmanian was unerring in his approach, which has been likened to former great Glenn McGrath.
''It's always nice to get comparisons to one of the greats of the game - it's only my second Test match and McGrath took 500 Test wickets,'' said Bird, who bowled into the wind for much of the day. ''I've got a lot of hard work to do before I can even get close to Glenn but it's always nice to hear comparisons like that.''
Bird, who played his grade cricket with Manly in Sydney, had opening pair Dimuth Karunaratne and Tillakaratne Dilshan caught behind after finding steep bounce, then collected the scalps of tailenders Rangana Herath and Suranga Lakmal to finish off the visitors. In between he had fly-in replacement Lahiru Thirimanne given out leg before first ball only to be denied the chance of snaring a hat-trick after the batsman successfully had the decision overturned.
Thirimanne's fighting 91, made after more than three-and-a-half hours of graft, has given the Sri Lankans a fighting chance of posting a historic maiden Test victory in Australia.
The onus is now on Australia's new-look top order to avoid a slip-up on Friday or else risk being exposed in the final innings to last year's leading wicket-taker, spinner Herath.