All things grand come with a high probability of a let-down. And Tests don't come grander than Boxing Day. When 70,000 people flock to a venue, for a day they've been looking forward to for most of the year, a social event during the week where they forget how hard and mundane the rest of the working year has been, expectations are high. For a day's Test cricket to live up to them is a big ask.
For most of the day, in the cricketing world as a whole, MCG's Boxing Day Test was the second-most talked about thing. Cheekily, Canterburians reminded Victorians that Christchurch's Hagley Park Oval was 100% full, MCG merely 70%. In Christchurch, more runs were scored, more wickets taken, more records broken, more action packed in an 80-over day. It must have been thrilling to watch. But for a more wholesome day, filled with old virtues of Test cricket, full of plots and subplots, slow twists and turns, sunny and breezy weather, the soothing though fleeting return of Bill Lawry, don't look beyond Melbourne and its 5 for 259 scored at 2.87 an over.
There was discipline from India's new-ball bowlers, a reminder of the fickleness of the game for David Warner, redemption for Mohammed Shami, perseverance from Chris Rogers and R Ashwin, a rousing welcome to debutant Joe Burns, self-denial from Steven Smith, flattery and deception from Shane Watson, pain and fight for Brad Haddin, and a Test match in balance at the end of the day. There wasn't a performance that you would call great yet - these are two middling teams trying to fight their own problems - but the ebbs and flows kept you hooked and rose above the mundaneness of the rest of the year.
The day didn't begin with too much cheer in the Indian camp. Varun Aaron had heard of the death of his grandfather. He is going away for the funeral and will return on December 31. Before his replacement, Shami, came on to bowl, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav began with three successive maidens at the top. This is the first time India have managed that since Edgbaston 2011.
The pressure brought them the wicket of Warner, and already you could see this pitch was going to be difficult to bat on. Some balls were skidding through, some were stopping and bouncing steeply. When it gets difficult, at least on quicker pitches, the 37-year-old Rogers can be relied on. All his scores of 50 or more have come when Warner has failed. He feels the added responsibility and responds to it. He is also candid enough to admit it is almost scary to bat when Warner is going; you feel like you are not doing your bit.
Shami provided him the first bit of relief. A half-volley and a short and wide one. Two fours in an over after you have been made to crawl in the first eight. Cheers, lad. Rogers was away. Watson took a bit longer, but the two batsmen - whose places were under scrutiny - took Australia towards prosperity. Shikhar Dhawan saw the ups and the downs too, taking a nice low, diving-in-front catch to send Warner back, but then reprieving Watson. Who knows how he would have celebrated had he caught his bête noire Watson diving to his left, after his thigh-five in Brisbane? Was he thinking, for a fleeting moment, of the celebration before he could complete the catch? Another story within a story.
The story within the story for Watson was that before he fell leg-before today, in the last Test of the year, he had been trapped in front of the wicket in the first Test of the year. So maligned has been his lbw habit that not even his opposition noticed that he has worked on it and almost eliminated it. They kept feeding him balls at the stumps, and Watson kept working them deftly to leg.
Just when it was all getting out of hand, the man responsible, Shami, produced a good ball. That's what Shami does. He bowls a lot of poor deliveries that release the pressure, and he bowls really good balls that tend to get him wickets. Among the Indian bowlers, he bowled arguably the poorest, but ended up with better stats. Rogers was so annoyed he went back cursing himself. Another start gone without a century. At 37, you feel the pinch more.
Ashwin could argue he contributed to Shami's bowling stats. Apart from the first wicket that went in the second over, whenever a wicket fell Ashwin was either bowling at the other end or bowling himself. Figures of 27-7-60-1 won't do much to correct his average of 64 and strike rate of 122 away from home, but this is a remarkably improved performance from the time he lost his place in overseas Tests first to Ravindra Jadeja and then to Karn Sharma. He has cut down his variations to almost a point where he doesn't bowl them, he has realised his role in Australia is to contain, but containment cannot come about through darts.
At one point, Ashwin's figures were 11-5-8-1. He was bowling well, and bowling well to a plan. Dhoni and he took a risk by placing a mid-on and a long-on directly in line. That meant square leg was vacant, but if Ashwin could keep bowling full and not too straight, with varied trajectories, they could eliminate both the easy single to long-on and the loft over mid-on. Ashwin was up to the task. Such accuracy demanded respect from the batsmen. Smith complied.
It was not that Smith was struggling, but when the bowling was good he scored just eight runs off 40 balls. Now this is a man known for quick scoring. The captain, though, was taking full responsibility of steadying the ship after two wickets had fallen just after lunch. He opened up only when Ashwin's long fingers showed signs of tiredness and dropped one slightly short. He went back, and punched him through cover-point, and then ran all four. Only when he had reached 23 off 60 did he step out and drop Ashwin inside-out over mid-off for a six. That shot seemed to rattle Ashwin a bit. A carrom ball or three made a reappearance. He looked less effective now, but the new ball was approaching. You can work hard all day, and can then give it all away once the new ball is taken, both as the batting side and the bowling side.
Just before the new ball, though, Burns' dismissal brought Haddin in. The other 37-year-old in the Australian side. He is still keeping well, but it seems India have got into his head with their bodyline. His dismissal in Brisbane, trying to evade a short ball but popping up a dolly to short leg, was quite tame. These things aren't forgotten in a hurry. The first ball he faced today was with a leg slip, a forward short leg, and a long leg in place. Yadav went round the wicket and aimed at his armpit. Haddin didn't know what to do, and wore it on his arm. He didn't flinch, but for the rest of the day he held his bat in his right hand when running, at the cost of having to turn blind.
Haddin ducked, he swayed, he ran inside the line of the ball, he pulled, but this time he didn't play a weak shot. For about 20 overs, adding just 43 runs, he gave support to the man who was named captain ahead of him, the man he rallied behind in the captaincy call. Had either he or Smith played a loose shot, the day would have belonged to India. Had they got loose balls from the Indians, they might have gone close to 300 to make this day their own. That wouldn't have been half the fun.