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The Boxing Day phenomenon

The day before the Boxing Day Test is surreal. The calm around the MCG is eerie. In 24 hours, potentially 90,000 people would walk through the turnstiles, but now there are only the two teams, a handful of journalists and half a handful of stewards.

Being practically alone in a stadium so huge that it should have its own GPS coordinates, can be scary. A little lonely too. Two days ago, MS Dhoni completed 10 years in international cricket. When asked about that, the first thing he thought of was his family and friends and wife, and the time spent away from them.

It's all cheerful outside. The walk from around Southbank, a general area where the players lodge and where most trams into the city halt, to the G, is filled with festivities. You walk past an open-air market, restaurants with fancy Christmas lunches and people lounging in easy chairs at Federation Square waiting for a show to begin. Up along the Yarra and onto the William Barak Bridge, which is deserted on Christmas day, you leave the revelry behind to go fuss over your trigger movements or stance in the slips or that annoying no-ball problem or transcribe long-winding Dhoni analogies. The 90,000 on the day after Christmas must be entertained.

Just the occasion can be great pressure. Australia, though, turn this into a bring-your-family-to-work day. Before they went to their customary Christmas lunch along with their families, the Australia players came to the G for a light training session, with their families watching. Brad Haddin's sons padded up and got to face some of the Australia Test cricketers. Darren Lehmann simulated scores from behind the net, and every time the little ones reached a milestone, everyone present applauded. The kid would remove the oversized helmet and raise the bat as if to the Boxing Day crowd.

David Warner brought his little daughter along too. Just outside the nets, as he stood playing with her, the Indian team started to walk in. The support staff first. Then legspinner Karn Sharma. Warner called out for Karn and asked him how he was. Then how Shikhar Dhawan's baby's birthday went. All the while Karn played with Warner's daughter. Lehmann made it a point to wish the Indian players Merry Christmas before he left. For a moment you thought these players might be normal people too.

Except they haven't come across as that over the last two Tests, what with four of them already disciplined for not acting in spirit of cricket. Except that half an hour ago Steven Smith addressed a press conference in which he took a proper dig at India.

When asked if his side had a proper sledging strategy to upset the opposition, the Australia captain said, "At the moment the Indians are doing that themselves. Among their group, they're doing a lot of whingeing and complaining among themselves. They're doing it all for us. Hopefully that can hinder them this week.

"For us, it's just about going out there and doing the same thing all the time. If they want to get on with that in the dressing room - that's up to them. We'll just keep doing the same thing we've been doing and hopefully we'll get some of the same results."

The Christmas spirit was fleeting. Dhoni, though, refused to get drawn into a war of words. About the whingeing, he said there had been no formal complaint and so he didn't know what Smith was on about. A complaint was out in the media, but not with the authorities. About whether the opposition had gone out of line with their tactics, Dhoni said a press conference was no place to retort. Sledging, both captains said, will continue, "within the limits".

Yet it is skill and resilience that will decide the Test. The posturing and the abuse should not be allowed to take away from that. It has been a tough series for both sides. It is always tough for tourists in Australia, but the hosts this time have fought through a tragedy. They have paid for their two wins through injuries to key players. They have had to blood in a 25-year-old captain. Two senior players are enduring a slump in one aspect of their game, but are somehow managing to contribute in the other. This is one of their weakest batting line-ups since the Kerry Packer players re-joined the official fold. Yet they can still think of a whitewash.

India have played bolder cricket in the face of adversity than they are known to. They have had injury and selection issues of their own. Teams hardly play three back-to-back Tests these days, but India have graciously agreed to do so in the wake of Phillip Hughes' death. They have been spirited, they have been aggressive, but have faltered briefly. Yet a whitewash cannot be ruled out.

When the two teams come back to the G on Boxing Day, they won't be alone. The stands will be teeming with life, a lot of alcohol, beach balls and booed security guards wearing yellow. The cheer will have been carried into this magnificent venue. Neither Dhawan nor Warner will be inquiring about each other's babies. The players might still feel lonely or anxious out in the middle, but they will be part of an important day of the lives of 90,000 people. Go on, lads, no pressure.