Langer's men sacrifice family time for MCG spectacle

Australia will spend Christmas without their families, all to make sure the fans have something to celebrate

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Australia's XI will be unchanged for the Boxing Day Test, and the mere fact it will be played at an unchanged venue, the MCG in Melbourne, after a year of so much uncertainty will be in itself a major triumph of tradition and continuity over the many vagaries of a Covid-19 world.
However no-one will need to look far beyond that happy fact to the many ways things have changed nevertheless. For one thing, the MCG's usually mighty Boxing Day gathering of more than 70,000 spectators has been cleaved back to the region of 30,000 for social distancing reasons. For another, those present will be subject to a wide range of restrictions and limitations never before imposed on an MCG crowd, whether they be MCC members, corporate guests or the paying public.
"Be a pretty courageous man to change the XI after the last one so at this stage unless something happens over the next few days, but we'll go in with the same XI," Australia's coach Justin Langer said. "And yeah 30,000 is better than none, and it wasn't that long ago, probably a month or a few weeks ago that we wondered whether we'd have a Boxing Day Test match in Melbourne.
"Being at the MCG, I come here a lot, but it's just an amazing stadium, Boxing Day, there's so much hype about it. The boys love playing here. The Indians, a lot of them have probably dreamed of playing a Boxing Day Test match, and 30,000 is better than none. It's not the same as 90,000, but I'm sure the 30,000 who come in will certainly provide the atmosphere we love about the Boxing Day Test match."
A third reason that will stick in the memory of the Australian players is perhaps the most salient departure from decades of tradition. For years, without fail, December 25 has afforded the hosts a brief Christmas morning training session before a more relaxed photo opportunity and lunch where players, staff and their families mingle happily on Boxing Day Eve.
This time, though the team lunch will be largely one of players and staff only: the sacrifice they have made to see the MCG Test played is to experience Christmas without their loved ones, so as not to break the bio-secure bubble so critical to the series happening at all.
"It's the first time in 50 years I've been without my family," Langer said. "And I'm not great with presents, I'm not buying myself any presents. I think it's going to be nice having all the guys together. There's a number of players and the staff who are without families this year. It's one of the sacrifices we have to make in 2020. It's not ideal but it is what it is. There's such an amazing feeling within this team.
"It's a real family feel, the guys look after each other. It's one of our values about looking after each other through mateship. One of our other values is humility, and we know it's not perfect this year but we'll get on with the job, for the bigger picture of cricket. What I wish for is that the lessons we've taken from this year, and the positive lessons, continue through, especially in the Australian cricket team, because it's a dream to be a part of at the moment, it's a great bunch of people.
"The very fact that we played the Adelaide Test last week was brilliant - we love playing in Adelaide. Boxing Day Test Matches are probably the favourite of guys who have known me, I've said it is my favourite day on the calendar for as long as I can remember - Boxing Day as an Australian cricketer. It is a bit different this year, the first time in 50 years without my family, but all that aside. It's because the sacrifices made we are playing a Boxing Day Test with 30,000 people, that's a great thrill for anyone who loves cricket like we do."
As much as Langer was able to enjoy the stunning conclusion to the Adelaide Test, he had been under no illusions about how India had shaded the Australians over days one and two, particularly in terms of first-innings batting. While Tim Paine's rearguard was pivotal in getting his side close enough to push the Indian top order to implode on that dramatic third afternoon, Langer acknowledged there would need to be a big score pulled together in Melbourne, on a surface highly unlikely to be as helpful for bowlers.
"I actually said on the morning of day three before that extraordinary hour or so that we were in for, I said to the guys let's make no mistake this is proper Test match cricket. India had the better of us really for the first two days of the game," Langer said. "We were in for a real arm wrestle of a Test match. So it was amazing how things turned around. We know how good a team India is, we know we've got to keep improving.
"If we're going to become a great team we have to get better at winning after we win and people didn't quite understand that, but really good teams keep winning and winning, particularly when they're playing good cricket. So it's an area we've addressed, we'll have to start well Boxing Day morning and then be consistent, because we know India will fight back as we saw in the first two days of the Test match in Adelaide."
He has not forgotten how, on the flattest of surfaces, Cheteshwar Pujara set India on the path to a series victory in 2018-19 by successfully absorbing the best Australia could deliver on Boxing Day and going on to ensure the hosts' first innings began under enormous pressure.
"We're a very different team. We have come a long way in two years. We are now playing very good cricket; we've got confidence," Langer said. "I also remember losing the toss at the MCG on a very, very, very, very flat wicket and that certainly took some of the wind out of our sails, that's for sure.
"So, we're a different team and we know that in first innings in Australia we are looking to score 400 in the first innings - there is no surprise there, that's what we've based our best Test cricket on for years. So, when I said we have got areas where we can improve, that's one I am talking about. We play our best cricket, as we saw all last summer, when we are scoring big first-innings totals, that's what we aspire to and what we will be aspiring too in this game as well."
As for the pitch, Langer was hopeful that the MCG groundstaff would be able to produce something more akin to last summer's strip for the New Zealand Test, not only for the entertainment of the 30,000 spectators permitted entry to the ground, but for the betterment of Test cricket across the globe. There has perhaps never been a Boxing Day Test so likely to attract a huge global audience, simply because most parts of the world are nowhere near as fortunate in coronavirus terms as Australia has been.
"Last year I know the MCG was under huge pressure to produce a good wicket," he said. "Matty Page and the grounds guys here did a great job last year, and it's really important for Test cricket. I thought the wicket in Adelaide was brilliant, because there's a contest between bat and ball and all we ever ask is that. So it's the same at the MCG, we're really hopeful that's the case and not just for this Test match or this series but for the health of Test cricket.
"All the players love the Boxing Day Test, Australians love the Boxing Day Test, people around the world love it, so we're all looking and hoping for a good wicket that will provide some assistance for the bat and the ball because that's exactly what Test cricket needs."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig