Sport Cricket Australia on top in Test after a hard day’s struggle
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Australia on top in Test after a hard day’s struggle

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An Ashes Boxing Day Test. What an occasion. 26 December, 2013 proved so off the field – if not on it.

Shortly after 4pm, the MCG’s gargantuan screens beamed out the world-record breaking news that 91,092 punters had passed through those hallowed gates. This is was the highest official attendance at a cricket match in the game’s history.

Of course this wasn’t just about the cricket: Melbournians queued, they drank Carlton Draught, they ate Four’N Twentys with sauce and they followed the races in Caulfield. This was a family occasion that transcended the sport on show. The cricket can wait for the following four days.

On the field, things were a little more sedate. Michael Clarke won the toss, as he has done all series, and inserted England, as he had not done to this point, in the hope that the crowd would get behind his team on a green seamer and favourable overhead conditions. This was bold move – England would surely have batted had they been given a choice, as Australia’s three-zip series lead has been built around imposing first innings leads.

But field Australia did and, as the crowd, nursing seasonally heavy heads, filtered in, England’s openers made a solid start. Alastair Cook, so brilliant three years ago, scored quickly but streakily, and Michael Carberry dropped anchor. Ryan Harris took no time to find his line or length and bowled brilliantly first up, while Messrs Johnson, Siddle and Lyon failed to tie the openers down. While Cook took eight from Johnson’s first over, the pair found life tougher against the tireless Harris. The Queenslander’s heavy-footed approach and accurate aim drew multiple fends and nibbles outside off, simultaneously drawing the breath of 90,000 cricketing pilgrims.

Eventually, the pressure told. Shortly after the drinks break, the unflagging Peter Siddle, on his home-ground and cheered vociferously by the crowd on his 50th test, made the breakthrough, as he so often does. Cook pecked one too many times and was snaffled at second slip by the ever-reliable Clarke. England reached lunch at 1/71, the only scares thereafter being Mitchell Johnson imparting a characteristic blow to Joe Root’s helmet and Carberry surviving an optimistic review against Harris.

It was slow going after lunch. Carberry, famed for his leaving, fell trying to let a Shane Watson swinger go, before Kevin Pietersen dropped anchor. The right-hander left his usually flamboyant and carefree self in his hotel room as he knuckled down to reach the close an uncharacteristically restrained 67 not out.

Pietersen rode his luck, no doubt, but played the innings of a true team man. Pietersen played just one scoring shot, a pull off his nemesis Peter Siddle, off his first 37 balls. He freed his arms after that, though, nearly perishing to Harris, the sub Nathan Coulter-Nile falling over the rope after taking the catch at fine leg, and George Bailey shelling a rudimentary chance at midwicket.

Wickets fell around Pietersen, though, confirming Boxing Day as Australia’s day. Joe Root, seemingly unable to score as he was goaded by Clarke, fell caught behind after a vigil characterised more by plays and misses than eye-catching strokes. Ian Bell, like most of his top order teammates, made a start, did the hard yards and fell caught behind, while Ben Stokes looked to have carried his strong Perth form forward, but could not handle Johnson with the new ball and perished behind the wicket too.

England, having looked solid an hour earlier, were in trouble.

The tourists’ problems deepened as Jonny Bairstow, who replaced Matt Prior, was castled by a Johnson snorter. Pietersen and the brave Tim Bresnan saw them to the close at 6-226. As they have all series, the Englishmen struggled to score quickly enough and fell when set. Australia will surely have left the MCG the happier side.

Shot of the day: Jonny Bairstow’s wild top-edged maximum was ugly, undignified and told a story of a man worked over, but achieved the desired result. He looked streaky mid-year and, batting a slot lower, looked uncomfortable again.

Ball of the day: Moments later, Bairstow was castled. A gaping hole between gap and pad was exploited, and the top of off went tumbling. Beauty.

The moment: Pietersen had struggled. Finally, the ego got the better of him and he swung at Harris. It was there for Coulter-Nile and the crowd went while. Up it went, down it came and the sub’s balance failed him, and out it went…You don’t drop Kevin Pietersen…

Stat of the Day: Legend day. There was some beautiful symmetry as Pietersen, victim of a barrage of abuse from Geoffrey Boycott this week, overtook the legendary Yorkshireman when he reached 63. When taking Stokes’ wicket, Johnson reached 229 Test wickets, and overtook Ray Lindwall in the pantheon of Aussie greats.