Four years ago this week, Mitchell Starc received cricket's equivalent of a lump of coal for Christmas. He was rested for the Boxing Day Test. Not dropped. Rested. Starc was 22 at the time, and was entering what team management called a "danger period" due to his heavy workload. "We don't want a high-risk strategy," chairman of selectors John Inverarity said at the time. Australia's then coach, Mickey Arthur, said Starc "took it very well".
Perhaps Starc was just a good actor, because that decision still irks him. Four years on, Starc is the leader of Australia's attack, the No.6-ranked Test bowler in the world, and the owner of 136 Test wickets. And he is still waiting for his first Boxing Day Test. He enters this year's Melbourne Test having sent down 56 overs in Australia's win over Pakistan at the Gabba - his highest workload in any first-class game - but don't expect Starc to rest this time.
"It's happened before. He's in the other camp now, I think," Starc said in Melbourne on Friday, referring to Arthur, now the coach of Pakistan.
It is perhaps surprising that Starc has not played a Boxing Day Test, for it feels that he has been a fixture in the side for many years. But in 2012 he was rested; in 2013 he missed the whole home Ashes due to a stress fracture of the back; in 2014 he was dropped from the XI that beat India in Brisbane to accommodate Ryan Harris, who was returning from injury; and in 2015, Starc missed the second half of the summer due to an ankle injury.
"There's a few of us in the rooms that are yet to play one," Starc said. "Personally, as a kid growing up watching the Boxing Day Test, it's always been a dream of mine to play in front of a full house at the MCG on Boxing Day. If I get the chance this week I'll tick that one off and it'll be a fantastic experience to walk out and sing that anthem. To play a Boxing Day Test will be pretty special."
The heavy workload of Starc and Josh Hazlewood in Brisbane - Hazlewood also bowled 56 overs, his highest tally in a first-class match - has led Australia's selectors to include uncapped allrounder Hilton Cartwright in the squad. There is a chance they could bring Cartwright in at the expense of No.6 Nic Maddinson to ease the burden on the fast men, although Starc said he felt fine after the Gabba Test.
"Whether we've got three quicks and a spinner or three quicks, an allrounder and a spinner, there's going to be times when we have high workloads and times when we dont" he said. "So I guess it comes back to us and making sure we can take ten wickets quicker than 130 overs, and then no one's asking that question. Whichever way they go this week, we'll prepare to bowl a lot of overs if we need, and if not, perfect.
"The last ball I bowled in that Test match, which was in my 56th over, was 149 clicks, so no issues on my end. I can only speak for myself. You'd have to ask the other quicks if they're any different. A Boxing Day Test just gets everyone up and ready to go."
Should the selectors decide not to change their winning XI, it will mean another chance for Nic Maddinson, who has made 0, 1 and 4 in the three innings of his fledgling Test career. Starc knows all too well how difficult it can be to gain traction as a Test cricketer without being given a decent run in the side - for the first few years of his career he was often in one Test and out the next - and he hopes Maddinson is given another chance.
"I guess I've been in a similar position in a way, where I've been in and out quite often through the start of my career," Starc said. "There were some times when I was back more and given more of a chance and a longer run of cricket, where my performances started to pick up and I got that consistency in my game.
"I definitely think 'Maddo' should get another chance. In the end it's up to the selectors, but continued cricket at this level can only help him. It would be a great opportunity for him on Boxing Day after we've had a couple of wins together as a unit, so it would be nice to stick together."
It would also give Maddinson a chance to prove his credentials against the red ball, for so far he has played only pink-ball Test cricket, against South Africa in Adelaide and then against Pakistan in Brisbane. Starc is pleased to be returning to the red-ball game, with the pink Kookaburra having proven hard work for the fast bowlers at the Gabba.
"We won't have to worry about a pink one for the rest of the summer, thankfully," Starc said. "I think they've come a long way with the pink ball where it's improved a lot since they first introduced it, but it still doesn't wear like a red ball. It's a ball that's really hard to get to go reverse because the leather is different. When it wears it sort of cracks and splinters off, whereas the red one scratches and creates a rough side where you can reverse it.
"I still think there's a way to go where they're very similar. But look, Kookaburra are working really hard and I'm sure they'll get there eventually. And the product is a fantastic thing, when you see the numbers and the spectacle that is day-night cricket. It's definitely here to stay. The ball's just got to catch up."