First-person reports from the stands
Choice of game
The Boxing Day Test at the MCG chooses itself, and the last time I failed to attend was in 2004. During November I was confident of a comfortable series win for Australia, including victory in Melbourne, however prior to the match, Perth notwithstanding, I was very pessimistic. I hoped, rather than believed, that a victory would result.
Never have I so earnestly desired Australian success. It is a peculiarity of the Australia-England rivalry that each set of fans would undoubtedly agree to barter prospective World Cup 2011 success for victories in Melbourne and Sydney, and thus obtain series laurels.
When Peter Siddle lunged forward to snare a low catch from the hooking Ian Bell, thereby having a hand in all five of the English wickets to fall, I was ready to declare him the key performer of the day. However as the day, and Jonathan Trott, inexorably drew on, it became clear that the most important player was the England No. 3. He joined esteemed company by scoring his third Ashes century, and played with an assurance altogether missing from his Australian counterparts the previous morning.
One thing I'd change
Except for a quaint village setting, the MCG offers every amenity that a cricket fan could want for. I might have asked for an easier pitch and sunnier conditions, but this morning the English batsmen showed that it was the players' carelessness, and not the conditions, that caused Australia's first-innings capitulation.
When Steve Smith came on to bowl to Kevin Pietersen prior to lunch and was greeted with two lusty blows for boundaries down the ground, despite myself I eagerly anticipated a KP special. However it was not to be as Pietersen fell to the toiling Siddle shortly after lunch.
Rather than a moment of astonishment or sharp satisfaction, today's "wow moment" was one of disbelief. After nicking behind off Mitchell Johnson in the 51st over of the day, annoyed indignation swept through the ground when Matt Prior was halted in his tracks moments after beginning his walk back to the pavilion. Aleem Dar was perturbed by Johnson's front foot and his suspicions proved correct as the third umpire, Marais Erasmus, indicated that a no-ball should be signalled, and a reprieve given. This, mingled with Pietersen's controversial UDRS survival and Trott's acrobatic lunge to beat a close Ponting throw in the 37th and 42nd overs respectively, combined to foment much discontent. Soon the shared origin of the principle actors was remembered; a realisation which in turn fuelled hushed mumblings of a South African conspiracy.
Shot of the day
My companion today noted early on that Trott's technique was uniquely compact. Usually the virtues of such an approach are not realised until conditions, like those today, become less favourable for batting. Until late in the day, Trott, who until then had faced every ball with consummate ease, had not played a uniquely memorable stroke. He then innocuously punched the chronically short Smith for what appeared to be a single slightly straight of mid-on. However the ball seemed to gain speed as it rolled along the carpet, passed the unsuspecting fielder, and comfortably beat him to the boundary. The stroke was at once beautiful and a metaphor for Australia's day. Early graft and five wickets offered some hope to the hosts, a hope which was only destined to be dashed as England, much like Trott's back foot on-drive, sped past Australia and out of sight.
A very healthy 67,149 patrons turned up for the second day of the Test. I had expected the demoralising nature of the day-one scorecard to keep many people away but happily this was not the case; perhaps the ever-increasing cost of tickets engendered in ticket holders a desire to get their money's worth.
Being diametrically opposite the Barmy Army encamped at the Southern End, all their chants were to me undecipherable.
Muted boos could be heard as Pietersen walked out to the middle, and these grew louder as he survived an appeal, and review, for caught-behind. The only other boos were directed at the Members' Stand during the rare attempts at the Mexican Wave. This is a historical anachronism as nowadays many of the members lower their noses and participate in the wave. The infrequent and insipid attempts to ignite the wave today were indicative of the mood of the crowd. It was forlornly waiting for the Australian team to generate some excitement, but lapsed into lethargy as the English marched on.
Being so vast, unless one is sitting next to a comically dressed person it is likely that they will remain unseen at the MCG. However the dress regulations of the Melbourne Cricket Club impose a very different fancy dress index: collared shirts and closed toe shoes are required, while ripped jeans are forbidden (alas, this specifically includes so-called "designer rips").
During the lunch break the hallowed turf of the MCG was peopled with future cricket champions. Eight- to ten-year-old boys and girls fulfilled their dreams by playing a match on the perfectly manicured surface. This is invariably followed by an awkward interview by the Cricket Australia host with the young player of the day, who, to their parents' delight I'm not sure, wins plenty of chocolate.
Banner of the day
It used to be the case that at any given match there would be a multitude of banners, some of which were often quite well thought out and witty. This practice was encouraged by a competition rewarding the best of those shown on television. Sadly this is no longer the case, as the only banners in evidence today were white with the red cross of St George. Some of these were even removed due to the fact that they obscured the advertising hoardings.
Opinion of the opposition
As noted earlier I believed that Australia were going to win this series comfortably. The unconvincing start in Brisbane I put down to lack of form, but as most of the matches continued in a similar vein I have been forced to acknowledge the superiority of the English team. James Anderson has impressed me most of all. He has shown tremendous maturity as a leader of the English attack, and his evident improvement from his previous visit demonstrates commitment, intelligence, and most importantly for visiting players, a will to dominate.
Strange selection policies have not helped the Australian cause but ultimately the blame must fall on the 11 players that take the field. The task that lies before them is reminiscent of that which faced India in New Zealand a few seasons ago. In that match Gautam Gambhir shattered every misconception about him with one of the greatest innings an opener has ever played. Is there someone under a baggy-green cap, the maligned Hughes perhaps, who can replicate such a performance?
Sadly for Australia, the characterless performance on the first day suggests a negative answer. In Durban overnight India, a team bred on the flat pitches of the subcontinent, was asked to bat first on a similarly difficult pitch against two of the best fast bowlers on the planet. If but Australia had replicated the Indians' gutsy performance, this Boxing Day Test, which could well decide the fate of the Ashes, could now be evenly poised.
Marks out of 10
5. The horrors of day one hung dreadfully over some 60,000 of the patrons who attended the match today. This dampened the crowd's enthusiasm to the extent that even local hero Peter Siddle could not enliven the experience in any meaningful way. The cricket played on day two was tough and competitive, but when considered in light of the match as a whole one cannot escape the feeling of inevitability. This feeling is euphoric for some, but for others it is utterly foreign and disconcerting.
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Sean Kelly is about to embark on his final year at law school, he is also a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club and a born and bred Victorian. A frequent patron at the MCG, his first, vague memory of the famous ground is a haze of Sri Lankan and Australian flags, a cacophony of noise, and turbulent fans - the usual ingredients - during the night innings of a one-day international.
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