There were times in 2020 when cricket fans had cause to wonder if the traditional Boxing Day Test could be held at the MCG, let alone host a crowd of 30,000 each day.
Now, in a stunning turn of events, no one is ruling out a second summer Test for Melbourne if Sydney’s coronavirus cluster forces an SCG Third Test shuffle.
Truely then, Melbourne could enjoy a post-COVID Indian summer
Cricket Australia has put off a decision on moving the January 7 match until early next week – hoping to give New South Wales a chance to proceed with the match as planned.
Officials are also working towards Brisbane hosting the fourth Test as scheduled despite border restrictions that have limited movement between the states.
The COVID-related uncertainty is familiar to Melbourne cricket fans who spent a long winter thinking that the record-breaking crowd of 86,174 at the Womens T20 final would be as good as it got for cricket at the MCG in 2020-21.
Instead, the world’s best cricketers spent the week training at the MCG and even kicking footies with the kids – a reminder that the winter sacrifices of Victorians in lockdown were worth the angst.
Until last week there had also been the worry that India could prove too formidable in a four Test series for an Australian team that was struggling to gel after the disruption of the global pandemic.
After a COVID-free Christmas it’s not just the return of the crowds that has Melbourne buzzing – with Australia rejuvenated and Joe Burns’ battling opening efforts offering green shoots that looked unlikely before India’s Adelaide first Test capitulation.
Veteran opener David Warner is still recovering from his ODI-induced groin injury, leaving Matthew Wade and Burns to again top the batting order.
The pair were scratchy in the first innings for Australia in Adelaide, but did provide the home side with a solid base for the winning second innings run chase – the bowlers having duly skittled India for a mere 36 in their second dig.
Australian coach Justin Langer on Thursday told reporters he was happy there was now competition for spots, reinforcing a message every sporting leader loves: “You are literally under the pump every time you play for Australia.”
“Every player is, that’s how it should be. It’s so healthy for Australian cricket,” Langer said.
“These things have a funny way of working themselves out and the guys who are making runs, they’ll keep getting selected.”
The likely unchanged Australian line-up is in stark contrast to the visitors, who have been forced into covering for major outs.
Skipper Virat Kohli has gone home on paternity leave – with Shubman Gill a likely replacement – and the loss of Mohammed Shami with a broken arm has further weakened the bowling stocks.
Opener KL Rahul and wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant could also be recalled as replacements for Prithvi Shaw and Wriddhiman Saha.
Stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane now has his work cut out reinvigorating a team that looked more than competitive for the first two days of the first Test before falling apart under sustained bowling pressure.
Not that Australian skipper Tim Paine is thinking it will be an easy ride.
“A huge focus of ours since that (losing) fifth Test since the Ashes has been winning after winning. But we’ve been fantastic in how we’ve prepared for this game.
“India is a proud cricket country, they’re an extremely talented side.
“We know some of the players they’re talking about coming in … if we give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.”
Joe Burns, who entered the series under fire, will again partner Matthew Wade at the top of the order after the Queenslander’s unbeaten 51 in the first Test.
The current tour is the first time the teams have been playing in front of crowds since the start of the global pandemic, and although two-thirds of the usual crowd of 90,000 for Boxing Day will be at home on the coach, Langer is counting his blessings, saying: “30,000 is better than none”.
“It wasn’t that long ago, probably a few months ago, we wondered whether we would have a Boxing Day Test in Melbourne,” Langer said.
Every time I come here, I pinch myself. It’s just an amazing stadium. There’s so much hype about it and the boys love playing here.”
In more normal times the lead-up to the Melbourne Test would be dominated by talk about the quality or otherwise of the pitch, but this year the ability to operate COVID-safe has been a priority.
The MCC has held special training sessions for ticketing and hospitality staff and an orderly process ensured everyone got a chance at the limited available seats.
Langer said a lot of work had gone into ensuring Melbourne could enjoy cricket the MCG – and that would hold true for the Sydney Test if it goes ahead.
“It’s not just a matter of saying, ‘Oh, that sounds like a good idea’ – There’s broadcasters, so many stakeholders who are part of the decision,” he said.
“I’m sure (the CA board) will come up with the right decision for the game.”
After a winter of discontent in Melbourne the match will also serve as a tribute to Victorian hero Dean Jones, who passed away from a massive stroke in September.
Some fans are planning to adopt Jones’ trademark zinc cream look, while there will also be a minute’s silence at 3.24pm on day one of the Test, marking the former cricketer’s top score of 324.
And it is likely going to be an MCG pitch that Jones would have relished.
With no first class matches at the MCG since the last Boxing Day Test, curator Matt Page has had plenty of time to prepare his best effort, and his handiwork is duly expected to provide plenty of runs, albeit with some later sting for the bowlers.
No matter the way this particular Test plays out, with everyone expressing happiness to be back playing in Melbourne, the pitch is indeed perfect.