First Test, Day 1: The smoking lady, the PM and the photo finish

by Matt O’Connor

It doesn’t take me long on Christmas Day to start thinking about my main present: cricket at the MCG the next day. Today we were entertained by Michael Burke in the MCC Dining Room. But before we get to that, let’s topple a couple of Boxing Day myths.

First, the Boxing Day Test Match has been locked into the MCG cricket calendar since 1980, not the Dawning of the Age of Time. Richard Hadlee had yet to be dubbed a Knight or a Wanker when he led New Zealand to a non-thrilling draw that year in front of an indifferent post-prandial Melbourne audience.

Which leads me to my second myth: that Boxing Day cricket has always been entertaining. Now I accept that I am assembling a bit of a straw man here, but it must be said that the advent in more recent decades of entertaining Test cricket (and Shane Warne) has helped us to purge ourselves of some horrible memories. My less than complex thesis goes something like this: Boxing Day cricket was rubbish until Darrel Hair no-balled Murali in 1995, and has been pretty good ever since.

It’s a nice, neat 15 year split, with one notable exception. In 1981, I sat in pretty much the same seat that I had three months earlier when my beloved Pies lost their third GF on the trot. The Windies assumed the role of Carlton, ripping through the Australian top order before encountering some brilliant Kim Hughes resistance. And then Lillee knocked over IVA Richards with the last ball of the day. The first football-roar I ever heard at the cricket.

But take out 1981, and Boxing Day, cricket-wise, didn’t really cut it until 1995. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the Test matches themselves. Some of them produced some great finishes and brilliant individual performances. It’s just that the Big Day was inevitably a fizzler.

After all, this was the era of two-and-a-half runs per over Test cricket. Batting sides crawled to just over 200 after winning the toss, hoping to be only four or five down. Often this set the tone, and draws were frequent. Australian batsmen played for their spots, instead of a win. Boxing Day became a day to catch up with mates in cavernous bars, with occasional glimpses at the screens when the odd wicket fell.

This was the state of affairs when Sri Lanka turned up in 1995 with their exotic spinner Muttiah Muralitharan. There had been talk about his unusual action, but calling no-balls for throwing was generally the preserve of the “courageous” umpire. I was tucked away in an upstairs MCC bar as the Aussies ground their way towards the standard first day 250, when the calling began. Without the benefit of a radio or audio on the screens, we had no idea that Umpire Hair was taking the plunge. We thought Murali must have been over-stepping. But the official record says Hair called him seven times, and his front foot had nothing to do with it. Boxing Day lost its innocence.

The revolution was initially incremental, and stymied by weather. Steve Waugh fought some doughty rearguards in 1996 and 1997, before the rains set in. In 1998, a massive first-day crowd funnelled down into the bars and stayed there well after play was abandoned in the Ashes test, and 1999’s first ball against India was delayed until 2pm. Waugh was at it again in 2000 against the Windies, gouging his way to 98no and setting up a big win. Rain jinxed the South Africans again in 2001, but the sun has shone ever since and the Boxing Day runs have flowed.

Justin Langer assembled 146 of his 250-run mountain against the Poms on Day one in 2002. Virender Sehwag’s brutal 195 in 2003 lays reasonable claim to the best ever Boxing Day innings, and Pakistan’s current (and then) captain Yousuf carved out a stylish ton in 2004 before converting to Islam. Ricky Ponting compiled faultless centuries against the South Africans in 2005 and 2008, and almost 90,000 jumped for joy in 2006 when Warne went through Andrew Strauss’s gate for wicket number 700.

And so to today. Batting sides now set their sights on 300 on Boxing Day, and so they should. Ponting won the toss and did well to stifle a chuckle. Danish Kaneria failed his fitness test, and Pakistan included third seamer Abdur Rauf. Shane Watson and Simon Katich established base camp in the middle of a sunny MCG, and we retreated to the modern MCC facilities to await news from the front.

Kerry O’Keefe told ABC listeners that 17yo Mohammad Aamer reminded him of a 1971 Dennis Lillee. If it was the white headband, then O’Keefe was at least 10 years out. But Aamer was sharp and accurate enough, regularly clocking over 145kph in his opening spell. Watson left dangerous balls judiciously, and Katich scratched around his chook pen as the Pakistan attack maintained a tight line. 0-73 at lunch from 29 overs invoked memories of the pre-Hair Boxing Day era.

While no wickets fell out in the middle, there were a couple of early casualties in the Dining Room. Michael introduces his aunt to everyone as “The Smoking Lady”, not in a Viv Richards sense, but more related to her liking for nicotine. TSL was rampant in the first session, upending two glasses between visits to the smoking compound. Our “pitch” became decidedly soggy, and an inspection was ordered for the tea break.

In his morning article in The Age, Peter Roebuck identified fielding as the main difference between the sides. Both openers were reprieved in the opening session, and cashed in after lunch. Discussion turned to Watson’s maiden ton. My 12yo son Daniel has been tormented by the Australian batsmen’s failure to chalk up three figures, but his mate Aiden perversely predicted a high 90s dismissal.

Half way through the middle session, a tall grey haired man and (presumably) his two grandsons settled down in the row in front of us. The tall man was Malcolm Fraser, and I told the boys that they were sitting behind a former PM. They feigned indifference, but leant forward to catch some snippets of Western District conversation.

By Tea, Watson had straight and cover driven his way to 90, and the Aussies had reached 177 without loss. I hustled upstairs to put on a Caulfield Quaddie, a traditional Boxing Day donation to the TAB. Sure enough, a 30/1 shot in the first leg wrecked the party. But when I resurfaced for the start of the last session, the race of the day was playing out in the middle of the MCG.

Unbeknownst to me, Katich had slashed to backward point, and taken off on a speculative jaunt. Watson had responded, but Katich retreated as the ball was unexpectedly apprehended by Salman Butt. Both batsmen had arrived at the striker’s end together as the bails were whipped off at the other end. When I arrived on the scene, technology was being called upon not to determine a wicket, but to identify the victim. It was as close to a dead heat as you could get, but somehow you knew the ill-fated Watson would lose. The umpires sent him on his long slow march, without a hundred again.

The upshot of this comedy was that it brought Ponting to the middle, wearing an arm guard for the first time. He has always been one of a very few cricketers who can alter the trends of Test Matches, and he immediately set about upping the ante as the Pakistan bowlers flagged. He stroked off-spinner Ajmal to the cover boundary to get off the mark, and raced to a faultless 50 in a fraction under a run a ball, studded with seven boundaries. His signature shot was to rock back when Ajmal dropped only marginally short, and pierce the crowded off side.

Katich let the 90s, or his Watson massacre, get the better of him, and he slashed loosely to Butt in the gully. Hussey joined Ponting, and immediately caught the mood.

So well was he batting, that the captain’s dismissal following the introduction of the new ball came as a shock. An edge from Asif was pocketed by Misbah-ul-Haq, and the Day 2 crowd was deprived of a potential masterpiece. The employment of Hauritz as a night-watchman with eight overs to go elicited the predictable howls of outrage from the commentary box, but he achieved his mission with ominous comfort.

Australia reached par by passing 300 late in the day. After a stodgy start, 2009 can rightly be placed in the post-1995 category of “interesting” Boxing Days, thanks to The Smoking Lady and cricket’s first ever photo finish.


  1. From reader, Micahel Collins


    It was the tale of two innings but of the same fate. One was at his scratchy best and the other ill-fated Australian opener continued to cut and drive in an assertive fashion. Yet both Simon Katich and Shane Watson fell agonizingly short, succumbing to their cursed fate. An Australian summer filled with unneeded controversy, average results, 18 half-centuries and Chris Gayle, Australia’s inability to convert starts to centuries continued. Watson’s dismissal was one of comedy and woe. The dramatic run-out of big chest Watson can be simply described by Conrad’s famous description of the African Congo, “the horror, the horror.” Like the Congo the run out was one of madness and confusion and inevitably a darkness gathered upon Watson as he trudged off the ground. Ironically the Pakistan fielding or lack-there-of proved to be the entertainment for the day. The lacklustre Pakistan outfit were expected to have a touch of Jekyll and Hyde about them. Tragically though it was Hyde who donned the whites, not Dr. Jekyll. The Pakistan fielding was simply a comedy of errors; fumbling, dropping, slouching and whining. The series couldn’t have got off to a worse start. Lets hope the Pakistanis take a leaf out of the West Indies effort and turn around their performance.

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