x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Boxing Day at Melbourne not for faint-hearted

The MCG has been home to many cliffhangers with one in the offing this week.

Glenn McGrath, left, and Shane Warne were around the last time the Ashes was played at MCG.
Glenn McGrath, left, and Shane Warne were around the last time the Ashes was played at MCG.

Australian cricket has a story, urban legend or not, about the photographer who overslept and turned up at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to find it deserted.

The men in baggy green had wrapped up the match in quick time and our man was contemplating the sack when he spotted some movement near the top of the Great Southern Stand. When he decided to investigate, he found the team in a big huddle, engaged in the post-victory ritual of singing Under the Southern Cross. The picture that he subsequently clicked became an iconic one.

To be at the top of the Great Southern Stand during a Boxing Day Test is one of the great sporting experiences that life can throw your way. From the top tier, the players can look like white pins on a green soft board. The thwack of wood on leather can barely be heard and the soundtrack to the show consists largely of the endless buzz that builds up in the stands below, especially Bay 13 with its reputation for heckling opposition players.

There were 62,613 inside the first time I experienced it in 2003. A few thousand of them were Indian supporters and, as the day wore on, their chants and shrieks of delight began to drown out even Bay 13's voices.

Virender Sehwag smashed his way to 195 in five hours, missing out on a double-hundred only because he decided he wanted to get there with a six over the longest boundary in the world.

India lost that game by nine wickets, having fallen victim to that other great Melbourne tradition, the batting collapse. That was best illustrated in the New Year Test of 1937, with the Ashes on the line. England had won by 322 runs in Brisbane and by and innings and 22 in Sydney and it was testament to the public's faith in Don Bradman that a record crowd turned up at the MCG.

On the second day, Bradman declared with Australia nine down for 200. There was rain in the air and inconsistent bounce was a major factor. England's response was even worse and by the time Gubby Allen also declared with nine wickets down - never before had both teams done so in the first innings of a game - they had made just 76.

That was when Bradman came up with the masterstroke that would ultimately determine the winners of the Ashes. He sent his bowlers out to bat first and though the scoreboard showed 97 for five at one stage on the third afternoon, the pitch and conditions had improved by the time the main batsmen arrived at the crease.

"Rain fell in the afternoon and between - and during - the showers the England bowlers were handicapped by a wet ball which they wiped with a towel between each delivery," says the Wisden Almanack. "Bradman took full advantage of this and, though not quite his old scintillating self, and eschewing the off drive, he thrilled the crowd and subdued the bowlers. Scoring 270 he played his highest innings against England in Australia. Not until the evening was it revealed that Bradman was suffering from a severe chill."

Bradman and Jack Fingleton added 346, and Australia went on to win by 365 runs. On that third day, 87,798 people turned up and the aggregate attendance for the match was a staggering 350,534. Further victories at Adelaide and Melbourne would seal the greatest comeback in Ashes history as Australia moved on from the ghosts of Douglas Jardine, Harold Larwood and Bodyline.

The tradition of Test matches encompassing Boxing Day started exactly 60 years ago with another Ashes Test. It was another low-scoring game, with England's 197 giving them a three-run lead late on the second day. But needing just 179 for victory, they stumbled against Ray Lindwall (three for 29) and Bill Johnston (four for 26), losing by 28 runs. Australia would win the series 4-1.

Arguably the most dramatic Boxing Day Test was played in 1982, with Greg Chappell's Australian side already 2-0 ahead with two games to go in the series. That match also saw a new innovation, the gigantic video scoreboard that showed advertisements and replays as well. The pitch had been newly laid nine months earlier and fortunes fluctuated this way and that for three days. Australia were set 292 to win, and Norman Cowans, who had replaced Eddie Hemmings in the XI, dismissed Chappell cheaply for the second time in the match as England took control on the fourth evening.

When the last man, Jeff Thomson, joined Allan Border in the middle, Australia were 218 for nine. But as at Edgbaston in 2005, England weren't over the line just yet. "As Thomson took root and Border switched to the attack, Willis adopted tactics which, though they brought final victory, were much criticised at the time," says the Almanack.

"When Border had the strike Willis placed all his fielders in a far-flung ring, which meant that if England were to win they would almost certainly have to get Thomson out.

"Even for the last two overs of the fourth day, after a brief stoppage for rain, Border was allowed to bat unharassed by close fielders. It was the same next morning, even when England took the new ball."

Needing a further 37 on the final border, Border and Thomson got to within a thick outside edge of success before Ian Botham summoned up the delivery that would make him only the second man after Wilfred Rhodes to make 1,000 runs and take 100 wickets against Australia.

It was a short ball outside off stump and the Almanack notes: "Thomson, sparring at it, edged a none-too-difficult catch to Tavaré, the second of Botham's two slips. Tavaré managed only to parry it, the ball bouncing away behind him but within reach of Miller, fielding at first slip, deeper than Tavare. With a couple of quick strides Miller reached the catch and completed it, the ball still some eighteen inches off the ground."

Until the victory at Adelaide earlier this month, England had gone more than a decade without winning a Test in Australia with the Ashes at stake. That success had come in a Boxing Day Test and could also be attributed to one of those famous Melbourne collapses. The first day's play in 1998 was washed out and with Steve Waugh scoring an unbeaten 122, Australia needed just 175 to take a 3-0 lead in the series. But after cruising to 130 for 3, they lost the plot spectacularly despite Waugh's reassuring presence at one end.

Dean Headley, grandson of West Indian great George, played only 15 times for England and this was his finest hour. He would finish with six for 60 as victory was clinched at 7.33pm on the longest day in the game's history.

With the Ashes alive and over 90,000 expected on the opening day to continue a tradition that dates all the way back to the inaugural Test in 1877, Sunday will not be a day for the faint-hearted. The drop-in pitch may not be to everyone's liking, but the spirit of Bradman, Hutton and Waugh should ensure another nail-biter at the most awe-inspiring venue in the game.