The MCG claimed a world record with a heaving, raucous 91,000 crowd on the first day of the Boxing Day Test — but for a long time, the cricket did not match the great occasion.
Australia suffered its worst day in the field all summer, missing three chances, and England did not have the boldness nor the skill to make the home team pay.
Then Mitchell Johnson took the second new ball and delivered, as he has done all season, with two late wickets that had the crowd out of their seats and gave Boxing Day the moments it demands. Normal service was resumed, and Australia has the edge with England 6/226 at stumps on the first day of the fourth Ashes Test.
Shane Watson’s day was emblematic of his career. Some day, they may just donate him to science for research on soft tissue injuries.
Australia’s captain Michael Clarke had made a rare strategic error at the start of the day when he chose to send England in to bat having won the toss, just the fourth “insertion” of his captaincy career.
It was folly.
For three Tests, Clarke followed a trusted method: Win the toss, bat, set up the game. But today he misread the pitch, and his comment at the toss betrayed his confusion: “I can’t believe I’m saying this, we’re going to have a bowl.”
Clarke thought the pitch moist, and potentially helpful to his quick bowlers, but it soon enough turned out to be flat and friendly to batsmen. The Australian bowlers, therefore, needed to put the shoulder to the wheel, and they worked in a pack, as good teams tend to do. They saved him from major embarrassment.
Ryan Harris’ unrelenting attack on the splice at good pace wore down the English batsmen, getting wickets for other bowlers. His own figures (20-8-32-2) reflect the hold he has over England, but don’t mention the fact he had three catches dropped from his magnificently metronomic bowling. England scored at a funereal 2.5 runs per over, a throwback to the more cautious days of Test cricket.
Meanwhile, Peter Siddle churned out the overs, Nathan Lyon extracted some turn, and Johnson blasted away, sending one ball down at 155km/h and having Jonny Bairstow’s back foot sliding to square leg in the final session. Bairstow’s dismissal, bowled by Johnson while declining to move into line, would not have filled the English dressing room with confidence after he was drafted in as a replacement for Matt Prior.
Shane Watson’s day was emblematic of his career. The all-rounder produced a brilliant, hooping inswinger that bowled Michael Carberry without the Englishman offering a shot, but then broke down with a groin injury. Some day, they may just donate him to science for research on soft tissue injuries. The sublime and the ridiculous are never far away when he is in the play.
The Australians twice missed Kevin Pietersen, at 6 and 41, on a day when one of the world’s most dynamic batsmen played like a dour struggler, labouring for three hours to reach 50, and facing 152 balls in his unbeaten 67. Pietersen appeared to be ill and sought treatment from the English team doctor at one point; he never dominated the Australians and former captain Michael Vaughan was moved to jest that he was playing like Sir Geoffrey Boycott, who had been so strident in his criticism of Pietersen after the Perth Test. Still, he was fiercely determined and he survived where four other Englishmen reached 20 but failed to go on.
England would have been in worse trouble had it not been for Pietersen’s escape at 6, when he was caught and dropped from the same ball by Nathan Coulter-Nile, the substitute fieldsman, off Harris’ bowling. Coulter-Nile made a good outfield catch when Pietersen hooked to fine leg, but he was backpedaling, and with his momentum about to carry him across the boundary rope, the Australian attempted to hurl the ball back into play. It ended up in the crowd as Coulter-Nile stumbled out of the playing arena.
Boxing Day has had more memorable days of cricket but never a bigger crowd, the final tally of 91,092 beating the half-century old world record for a single day’s cricket of 90,800 for the Australia-West Indies Test match in February, 1961. As the crowd figures climbed during the day it became part of the show to barrack for the world record, and social media was used to find a few extra members so that the old mark was obliterated.
For perspective, it is worth noting that there may well have been bigger crowds at Eden Gardens, in Kolkata, that were never adequately recorded. Players who took part in the World Cup final in 1987, for instance, will tell you at least 100,000 were there that day. But hell, it might as well be the MCG!