Christmas lunch enjoyed with the anticipation of a genuinely significant Melbourne Test match has for too long been an elusive pleasure.
It's now 20 years since the Melbourne and Sydney matches – the Boxing Day and New Year fixtures – began to be scheduled as the last two Tests of the summer. The calendar revamp which brought this on hasn't all been for the good. The matches with the biggest "live" audiences have too often been "dead" rubbers, thus short-changing the largest communities of Australian attendees.
But there’s nothing dead about this year’s Melbourne Test. Well, nothing dead unless the new MCC curator, Matt Page, hasn't been able to breathe life into a pitch that was delivered the last rites on or about December 28 last year.
Flashback: Crowds flocked to the MCG for Boxing Day five years ago.Credit:Pat Scala
Australia and India are now genuine and fierce rivals. One is historically the most successful cricketing nation, the other the modern game's off-field powerbroker. And the power-broker aspires to extend its dominance of the game's economy to the real battleground.
The two nations are locked at one win apiece in a four-match series.
The 2010-11 Ashes contest was the last time a pair of teams came to Boxing Day at 1-1. Alas, the dramatic narrative of that occasion was soon extinguished. England bowled Australia out for 98 and reached 157 without loss by stumps on day one.
As a comprehensive annihilation, this even exceeded Graham McKenzie's destruction of India's top order in 1967-68. Back then, after winning the toss, the Indians were 5-25 by drinks. McKenzie had taken the lot on his way to 7-66. So lop-sided were Australia versus India contests in those days McKenzie was left out of the last two matches of the series.
In this year's post-Christmas period, a lop-sided match seems unlikely.
It's unlikely because the two teams bowl significantly better than they bat, limiting the possibility of insurmountable blow-outs. Statistics tell the story: the highest innings score by either side to date is 326 and the average innings total is 257.
Australia's batting is shaky but even: thus far no player has made a score greater than 72. India's is the polar opposite: all tip and no iceberg. If Kohli, Pujara, and Rahane don't get the runs, no one else will. Kohli and Pujara have each made centuries in the series – the only two achieved – but such chronic lack of depth can't avoid exposure forever.
The problem starts at the top where the openers, KL Rahul and Murali Vijay, haven't cobbled together 100 runs between them in eight innings. And they run to the bottom, where the collective contribution of Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, and Jasprith Bumrah has been a pathetic 15 runs. Yes, they are bowlers, but they're also professional cricketers. To offer as little resistance as they've provided shows a lack of effort and application.
Perhaps this is vindication of the modern Australian strategy of firing bouncers at hapless tail-enders. The intention is that it will cause the Indian lower order to have little appetite for each new innings. It brings mixed feelings, though, for some observers.
Yes, every player must bat and – in the professional game – all must equip themselves with the basics and summon their courage. But, as we learnt in the most tragic circumstances four years ago, even a skilled batsman can be fatally injured. How much greater the risk for the relatively unskilled? Might the question one day be asked whether bowlers face a duty of care in such matters?
As for Australia's parlous batting stocks, not for 35 years has there been such an absence of individual contribution across a summer's first two Tests. When it last happened – as the West Indies' pace attack crushed the home team in 1984-85 – the tearful resignation of a captain followed. This time, events have unfolded in the reverse order.
The accidental skipper since the upheaval of Cape Town is of the old-fashioned, strong and silent type. When he does speak, he makes good sense. Often obscured behind a helmet, he remains more remote to the observer than most captains. Neither batting failure at the top of the order nor painful blows to an index finger seem likely to disturb his equilibrium.
A first-grade cricketer in Hobart since his mid-teens, Paine is used to copping it. From a young age, whether competing with his older siblings in the backyard or mixing it with men on weekends, he learnt to stand his ground. One who knows him well says the Indians are wasting their time trying to upset him.
Which will make the collision of the captains in Melbourne a drama all its own. For this is another clash of polar opposites. Virat Kohli is everything Paine is not. He is feted, he is famous, he is a chosen one.
Some are born great. And some have greatness thrust upon them. Paine was brought up to respect the game of cricket but can never have realised how important this nurturing might one day be. When he was "tapped on the shoulder", as it was put to me, and offered the captaincy of his country, his response was: "I'll try to win back the public respect."
So, this week, fascinating as issues like batting orders, fast bowling tactics, and India's decisions regarding its spinners will be, there is much more to observe. For the contest between the captains might surpass all else.
It is the brilliant batsman versus the back-stop. It is the prodigy whose trajectory has been ever- upward pitted against the player whose career stalled for so long as to appear finished. It is the odds-on certainty versus the 100-to-one outsider. It is the emotional perfectionist and the stoical survivor. It is fire and ice.
It is on for young and old.
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