MCG Test, Australia v India – Day One: Should I Have Stayed in Bed?

When the alarm-clock rings at 4.15am on Boxing Day, I am willing to forget the whole adventure. The customary Christmas high-jinks has left me anything but energised. I hit the snooze button and fantasise about staying in bed instead of catching the red eye to Melbourne to attend the MCG.

Watching the cricket at home on Boxing Day is the ultimate in slovenly luxury. One should not get out of bed until three minutes before the first ball is bowled, immediately moving to the couch to commence sustenance with Coopers Sparkling and ham-and-mustard sandwiches until falling asleep again in the lunch break. It’s common to stir again briefly mid-way through the second session to see a batsman approaching his hundred, before drifting off gently once more only to be woken by the roar when he reaches his ton. Repeat till stumps, followed by leftovers for dinner, then go back to bed.

When the alarm clock sounds again I am fully committed to the idea that Boxing Day is as much about sleep as it is about cricket. In the circumstances, a day of such perfect relaxation is truly an idle fantasy. With tickets to my first ever Boxing Day Test at the MCG, I have better things to do than dream all day. After one sharp jab to the ribs from my wife’s elbow, I am up and in the shower and in no time we’re at the airport departure lounge waiting for our 6am flight. The second sharp jab to the ribs for the day shortly follows when my wife spots Rod Marsh. How many cans could Bacchus consume on a flight from Adelaide to Melbourne, I wonder. It’s all theoretical now. He looks very serious in his suit and tie, probably on his way to a function in the MCC Members Reserve. Perhaps he is just as tired as I am.

Once in Melbourne, the excitement really starts to build as we walk down to the ground from the city. We take a detour to dodge the post-Christmas shopping mayhem but after a wrong turn leads us through the stench of a urine-puddled lane we momentarily lose our sense of direction. As we consult the map, a group of four walk past us purposefully in green-and-gold jumpsuits and white terry towelling hats, followed closely by three Roman centurions and a man in a gorilla suit. We put away the phone and join the procession.

The buzz amplifies as we navigate the crowds around the stadium: bleary-eyed men in ties and navy blazers, bright-eyed grannies pushed in wheelchairs, eight-year old boys with plastic flags, and a suit of fancy dress Richie Benauds. Public announcements ring out on the tannoy: ‘Musical instruments and full-size cricket bats are amongst the items not permitted into the ground.’  The thrill is building as we pick off, one-by-one, Gate 3, Olympic Stand, Level 1, Bay M55, Row NN, seats 16-17. Even the ticket numbers give a sense of the G’s massive scale. We are seated under cover in the last row of the concourse.

There is still twenty minutes before the start of play so I set off to get some coffee and provisions. The Paddock Cafe is the height of efficiency, smoothly steering patrons past the menu board to the cash register, where I am given my sandwiches and told there’ll be a wait for the coffee. When I move to the machine at the other end of the counter, I find an angry, desperate mob has gathered. After ten minutes of jostling for position and straining my neck to hear my name called, I feel a sense of irony that I should have awoken six hours ago and flown 800km only to miss the first ball of the Boxing Day Test, the main attraction, in a Melbourne queue for flat whites. Just as I hear the national anthem and am about to cut my losses, the two hot drinks emerge.

Righto, we’re ready for the cricket to start. Smith has won the toss and elected to bat. We are immediately adjacent to the large Indian contingent and a drum-beat begins when the Indians take the field. Clearly some special dispensation is involved as the last time I checked drums were classed as musical instruments. There’s a roar from the crowd when Davey Warner and Chris Rogers emerge. Spider-Cam is zooming around them and they are ten metres apart, mainly because Warner has trotted ahead and is wildly swinging his bat around his head. I’m suddenly reminded of a photograph of Ian Redpath and Bill Lawry, two dour Victorians walking out side by side to open the innings. Then another similar image of impossible elegance, of Hutton and Sutcliffe, striped caps and neckerchiefs. Why don’t the openers walk out like that anymore? The fact we have Spider-Cam to record the moment, rather than a man working a light-box on a tripod, hidden under a black curtain, seems like part of the answer.

The first ball of the Test, the big moment I’ve been waiting for, is an anti-climax. Ishant Sharma seems to start his run up before the crowd is ready, and the rhythmic clap only starts when he’s halfway to the wicket. The ball is just short of a length, outside off-stump and Rogers leaves it alone, the pattern for the rest of the over.

When Yadav breaks through in the second over, completely squaring up Warner who nicks a low sharp chance to third slip, immediately the drums begin again with a chant of ‘India! India!’ and I start to think it could be a long day if the Aussies don’t bat well. Warner was more prominent in the Christmas newspapers than in the middle, which is disappointing. I’ve seen enough photos of him playing with this baby daughter in the last week to last a long time.

Shane Watson comes to the pitch for yet another chance to prove himself on the big stage. His usual swagger is there but he seems tentative when taking guard. Yadav tests the recently-felled Watson with a bouncer, and he just manages to duck under it.  Yadav’s skipper mishandles the chutney behind the wicket and the pressure is released. There are two more misfields in the next minute, giving Watson and Rogers more relief. This tells the tale of the first session. India are sloppy in the field, wasteful with the new ball and generally incapable of applying sustained pressure.

The bowling to Rogers is particularly poor, but I start to wonder how much his well-organised game is affecting the Indians. He bats with a wide stance almost entirely within his crease, shuffling to the off-side so that he can comfortably leave most deliveries outside his body. Anything from hip to shoulder is clipped away. The rare ball that’s pitched up is squeezed through cover point, or just leaned on if full and straight. Width is punished. It’s ugly but it is extremely disciplined, and designed to weather a storm of fast, short-pitched bowling. The Indians oblige by bowling far too short, and seldom test him on the front foot. Shami in particular is unimpressive, while Yadav is underbowled. The fields set by Dhoni suggest they are bowling to a plan, but it’s the wrong one. Leg slip, short leg, deep backward square? Maybe at the WACA, but not day one at the MCG.

Watson is taking time to settle, batting with soft hands and sweating on those half-trackers that he loves to put away. After a couple of early swipes he settles down, and soon the right hand/left hand pair is rotating the strike and assuming control. The session is punctuated by India’s fielding mishaps, which seem to come in salvos. When Watson is dropped on 37, it’s followed two balls later by a Sharma misfield in the deep. Ashwin restores some order and raises the over rate when he comes on to bowl in the second hour.

At lunch the Aussies are in control at 1/92, with Rogers on 46 and the relatively circumspect Watson on 41.

At the beginning of the session after lunch, it seems like it is the Indian fans who are in for a long day. The drums have fallen silent. Rogers and Watson are clearly both relishing time in the middle at the MCG, mutually the scene of their greatest individual success. When both bring up their half-century in quick succession, it is difficult to see how they won’t bat the session. But this is Test Match cricket. From most positions, adding 2/30 can completely change the complexion.

Out of nowhere, a flat-footed Rogers is caught behind when he pushes his hands at a ball from Shami, pitched at the length the Indians should have been bowling all day. I’m disappointed for Rogers as he had worked extremely hard and had set up his team and himself for big scores. It’s all too predictable though when Watson is out soon after, pinned LBW trying to sweep Ashwin square to the only gap in the clogged leg-side field. Watson’s demise prompts more frustration than sympathy. His inability to judge and respond to the rhythms of the game has been a constant feature of his career. It is the wrong shot at the wrong time and suddenly it is 3/115, Australia has two batsmen at the wicket on nought, and India is in control. The drumbeat resumes with a Rastafarian air.

Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith knuckle down to grind out ten overs in the face of some much more disciplined bowling and fielding from India. Both Marsh and Smith show positive intent, using their feet to Ashwin and striking the ball cleanly along the ground but without penetrating the field or, importantly, rotating the strike. Consequently the pressure remains, but the comfort of the Australians gradually increases. Smith looks particularly fluent, seamlessly building back up to his form of the first two tests. Ashwin is hurrying Smith, denying him time to fidget and gather his tempo, but the pressure-valve is released from time to time when Smith uses his feet to loft Ashwin, inside-out, to the extra-cover boundary.  Marsh is scoring more freely but looks tense, like a man constrained by the stage of the game, and when Murali Vijay is brought on for his part-timers, Marsh reacts with a lustful swing and a dicey cut shot, to no great effect. He looks better against the quicks, with a crisp cover drive and a cut behind square his weapons on show. After a slow start, the fifty-run partnership is brought up off 116 balls.

At tea the Aussies are back in control at 3/174. with Marsh on 32 and Smith on 23.

Resuming after tea, Marsh fails to reset. His front foot shot is poorly executed, flashing a diagonal bat at a ball without the necessary width, and he becomes the next player caught behind the wicket to a well-pitched ball.

Marsh’s unnecessary departure brings Joe Burns to the crease on debut with the score on 4/185. He is warmly welcomed by the Melbourne crowd. Like his young skipper he fidgets, he gardens and generally fusses about but is dead solid in defence and absolutely looks the part. Once off the mark with a punch for three through the covers, his growing confidence shows when he joins Smith in lofting Ashwin straight on the off-side. The crowd is disappointed and surprised when he’s dismissed for an unlucky 13, caught behind from a bottom-edged pull shot. Replays suggest the ball skidded through, confirming that this MCG wicket is two-paced (and therefore true to type). Meanwhile, Smith is raising the tempo and looking completely comfortable, having raced to 58 by drinks.

The ten overs after drinks brings a disappointing lack of vigour from India. The field is spread and it’s painfully obvious that we are being made to wait until the new ball for any excitement. When it finally comes Yadav shows real aggression, particularly to Haddin, who seems to have lost his mojo to the quick stuff. I’m hoping for a characteristically thrilling finish to the day’s play, but Haddin is dogged despite his scratchiness, Smith seems untouchable, and the Aussies bat through to 5/259 at stumps, with Smith on 72 and Haddin 23.

Of the Indian quicks, Sharma bowled with bounce and venom at times but generally too short, Yadav looked threatening but never for long enough and Swami was, to my mind at least, underwhelming. If the Indians are going to take twenty wickets in good time, they shouldn’t rely on the pacemen. Fortunately, Ashwin impressed with a good first innings spell to hurry things along. He’ll need to toss it up a little more in the second innings if he wants to capitalise on a wearing wicket. I expect Vijay to bowl more in the second innings too.

It wasn’t the most engrossing day’s cricket I’ve seen, but it ebbed and flowed and the game is set up for both teams on day two. Australia will want 350 at least on this wicket, and the Indians will be hopeful of getting through Smith and Haddin and knocking over the Aussies for sub-300.

Read Tom Martin’s foreword on the Cult of Matt Spangher in this year’s Footy Almanac.

Spangher

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An Adelaide parklands devotee and Bob Neil disciple.

Comments

  1. Well played Tom.
    Very well played, indeed, from an improbable location on the morning of Boxing Day.
    Mighty effort.
    You had me nodding along with the MCG ticket numbers, coffee station experience, and of course Christmas photos of DA Warner.

    How does the MCG Day 1 experience differ from Day 1 at Adelaide Oval?

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great report TM re catching the red eye for the greys lunches, I am nodding re that part of the day . India’s tactics, bowling and field placings were bewildering to say the least (more to come on that). Smith is organised at the crease, knowing his game as well as any 1, the opposite to S Marsh and of course, Watto.

  3. Nice one Tom, and Merry Christmas! There’s a lot to be said for the traditional (stay at home) viewing alternative, for the reasons you identify. I found day two’s morning session in particular similarly satisfying, but for different reasons: I enjoy not being quite so couch-focused on day two, and instead doing bits and pieces and floating in and out of the cricket.

    Washing dishes & clothes, finally getting to the growing skyline of papers, magazines, bills and the like, a swim, a spot of yoga. No doubt there is a prayer room at the MCG these days, but I can’t imagine mats and belts and bolsters being provided.

    Still, I was prompted to text my eldest and suggest Boxing Day MCG 2015. As he quite rightly points out, however, we haven’t yet made it to an AFL grand final so that remains the MCG priority # 1.

    Our hopes therefore rest with The Pear in 2015, as somewhat unlikely but enthusiastic members. I couldn’t see the value in maintaining an Adelaide Oval footy membership: (a) who wants to see the Crows anyway?; and (b) you don’t get any grand final priority.

    All the best for 2015. I look forward to reading more of your fine work.

  4. ER II, I’m yet to have the good fortune to attend Day 1 at the refurbished Adelaide Oval, but in the old days my old man and I would staunchly encamp each day in the last row of the concourse of the members enclosure, decidedly not under cover but immediately adjacent to the tunnel stairs that led down to the magic cave that was the Chappell Bar. The first session and a half was invariably spent in full sun, and required regular re-application of sunscreen and West End Draught. By about mid afternoon the shadow of the grandstand would have crept down to provide some protection, but watching a full day’s cricket always had a sense of stoic endurance, just as the true Test should demand.

    Rulebook, you’ve gone easy on Dhoni this far, it’s time to tee off.

    Daddsy, merry Xmas and new year to you too. I’m also yet to get to an AFL grand final. Let’s form a touring party for 2015!

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