In Australia and New Zealand, the Boxing Day Test has two teams capable of producing the type of cricket befitting the stage and the occasion. But MCG pitch might have the final say
In cricket’s darkness lies much of its charm. As a player, for example, moments of personal failure will outstrip success considerably. A batter might spend all week preparing meticulously, ‘ticking the boxes’ of nets, extra throwdowns, fitness, avoidance of alcohol, early to bed on Friday, only to be sent in on a wet wicket and soon after adjudged leg before after ‘smashing it’ into the front pad. Hours of thorough preparation again thwarted by a bad toss and an umpire with cataracts. This is just one scenario. There are a thousand others.
There’s something of the player’s parable in the Boxing Day Test, too. While all the component parts appear to be in place, history demands that we brace for something less than the sum of its parts.
On the home front, life is good. Whereas last season’s series against India was played with a sandpaper-coloured asterisk, this season Australia look a side on the rise. They possess the best batsman in world cricket, they’ve got a popular captain, they’ve unearthed a generational No 3, and their pace attack is now being described as a “cartel” – the unofficial zenith of fast-bowling verbiage. Even David Warner is back, scoring runs having transcended his most famous character, The Bull. Last week in Perth, after watching Tim Southee rifle the ball back at Joe Burns, Warner was picked up on the stump mic saying, “I thought you were Mr Nice Guy?”. If ever there was a moment that underscored the world flipping on its head, Warner policing the nice guy credentials of New Zealand cricketers must go close.
New Zealand could scarcely be bringing more to the table, too. In the absence of raw power, they bring precision and intelligence. While Steve Smith may dine for free in the Test team for years, New Zealand has swiftly presented him a more difficult set of questions than anyone else has been able to in recent memory. Only Marnus Labuschagne looked at ease through the leg-theory inquiry, and the Black Caps are theoretically bolstered by Trent Boult’s return from injury.
With the blade they have pedigree, too. Their batting group has more Test hundreds than their counterparts (65 v 61), and they’re better spread across the top order. Having not played at the MCG since 1987 following commercially driven exclusion from Australian cricket’s headline Test, it’s not difficult to envisage Kane Williamson summoning an epic for his forgotten nation. And he would do so in front of an estimated 15,000 Kiwis who will be there in support.
Crowds are expected to top 80,000 for day one, meaning that the New Zealanders will be joining a Melbourne throng who at this point must be commended for again hoping for light against the prevailing dark of the dead wicket.
Though for all the conjecture over what will be on offer, the recent past typically provides the best indicator of what to expect. In the past five years, the average first-innings score is 491. Three times has a team declared their first innings. Three weeks ago, after playing in a Shield match against NSW, Victoria captain Peter Handscomb said: “It’s the MCG, mate. It doesn’t deteriorate. [It] hasn’t deteriorated in 10 years.” There is a reason David Warner said this week that the plan was to “bat big and bat once”.
Still, it gives us something to talk about. Around Christmas tables, backyards and BBQs will be conversation about pitch technology. Someone will deign to be clued up on drop-ins, concrete beds, Yarra Park soil, and the fact that “the MCG wicket has always been terrible”. That same person may go on to regale the enchanted audience with tales of SCG Trust skullduggery preventing the AFL from instituting a drop-in pitch there. Though to be clear, only about 12 people understand how pitches actually work in any nation, so be wary of anyone who claims expertise here unless their last name is Page, Burdett, Parker, Lewis or Mitchell.
So there are two teams capable of good cricket, a world-class colosseum, hordes of fans, a shiny broadcast, and everyone trying their best. But the memory of Mitch Starc’s double bouncer through to Tim Paine during the first over last year still lingers. And if this year’s wicket is similar, well, the cricket will be what it usually is: some pleasant background noise on Boxing Day, an epic innings or two, and a precursor to something more exciting in the Big Bash that evening.
However, as any veteran club cricketer will tell you: sooner or later, your day will come. So maybe, just maybe, Boxing Day is due.