There have been many strange Boxing Day Tests. Matches starting while the country is wreathed in bushfires, or while parts are under flood.
Plenty of first mornings during Melbourne summer cold snaps. Years with star players banned, matches underway while tsunamis overcame Australia’s neighbours.
This year will be another kind of strange, a new twist on the franchise. Call it Boxing Day Test: Global Pandemic Edition. A cap of 30,000 spectators who will be spread out over the stadium.
India’s previous visit drew 73,000 on day one.
This year’s number would be huge in most grounds, but that sort of crowd can disappear in the cavernous G.
The date may say it’s a classic, but the atmosphere may say it’s a Melbourne versus Fremantle twilight game.
Perhaps that would be fitting: an eerie quiet over one of our nation’s loudest places, reflecting the way that life became unnaturally still during 2020. Especially in Melbourne, the year has meant existing in a kind of shadow realm.
Things move quickly during the pandemic. Just ask the Indian team
It’s also a realm that moves fast, one moment cloaking everything and the next moment disappearing so utterly that you doubt your memories of it being there. A few weeks ago, a Melbourne Test was an impossibility; now there might be two in a fortnight with Sydney the new concern.
From an ABC perspective, Jim Maxwell being fit and firing but not present is a sign of tumult. He missed a Boxing Day Test in 1987 to get married and another in 2016 after having a stroke. Otherwise he’s been a regular since the Centenary Test in 1977.
The Indian team has seen how much can change in a week. Leading into the first Test in Adelaide, that squad seemed the more composed, with a predictable XI announced in advance while Australia fashioned makeshift solutions in the batting order.
Now India is the side coming apart after being demolished for 36 runs in Adelaide. Virat Kohli leaving the tour was a hole that a confident team could have patched, with the credentialled Ajinkya Rahane ready to take over the captaincy and the talented Shubman Gill to step in.
But Mohammed Shami’s broken arm is a loss too big to cover. With Ishant Sharma already absent with injury, India is now without two of the three fast bowlers who created the series win in 2018-19.
Jasprit Bumrah remains a wonderful practitioner but the work is too much for him alone. Umesh Yadav tries fiercely but lacks the ruthless control of his peers, and now India must pick one of the uncapped Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Saini.
On overseas bowlers debuting in Australia
Visiting bowlers making debuts in Australia seldom have a pleasant time.
That’s not conjecture, either. There have been eight foreign players in 143 years to take five wickets on an Australian debut. Five of them were before the First World War, and the most recent was in 1970. Only one of those matches ended with an Australian loss.
Then there is the question of Prithvi Shaw: one match shouldn’t be enough to drop a player, but an opening batsman bowled twice through the gate by Mitchell Starc’s inswingers does not instil confidence.
He might swap with KL Rahul, who was dropped as an opener on India’s previous visit for being unable to cope with Starc and Josh Hazlewood.
The thing India must remember is that Australia’s batting has its weaknesses. The home team was knocked over for 191 in Adelaide, and only got that far thanks to half a dozen dropped catches and a standout innings from Tim Paine.
By rights Australia should have trailed by a lot more than 55, and even that lead should have been enough for India’s batsmen to build a match-winning target. Their failure is down to one of those freakish days that cricket produces, a cosmic irregularity out of an otherwise quiet patch of night sky.
But remember, India won in Melbourne two years ago
Things should be very different for both attacks at the MCG, where the pitch is one for drudgery, and every Test since 2013 has seen at least one side make more than 400 in its first innings. Steve Smith’s record at the ground has been widely discussed, averaging over 100 in eight Tests.
Two years ago, India won in Melbourne by a distance, with only some resistance from Pat Cummins with bat and ball stretching the game into a fifth day. The result was based on Cheteshwar Pujara batting for a really, really long time: eight hours at the crease for 106 runs.
In Adelaide last week, India’s first drop looked set for more of the same, playing an excellent defence with a soft touch. He was only undone by the high difficulty of countering the mischief of the pink ball.
On Melbourne’s duller turf against a daytime red missile, Pujara can dig himself a rampart. This, and only this, is what India’s chances rely on.
But if Australia gets to bat first, it’s hard to see where sufficient incisiveness can come from.
And if that’s the case in the first Melbourne Test, fear for the teams if there’s a second. After some of the turgid surfaces on that tired square, the prospect of 10 days of cricket there sounds more like a judicial sentence than a schedule. Some years we could have used all 10 days to get a result.
On the other hand, 10 days of cricket in Sydney would traditionally return about four and a half days of play amongst the rain. That’s the other option being considered if the teams can’t get from the third Test in Sydney to the fourth in Brisbane.
It does make you wonder about that excellent result wicket and the clear dry weather in Adelaide. But with the events of last week humming away in the background, you’d sooner get India to play on an oil rig than go back there.
Another strange Boxing Day it will be, with an even stranger one to come if we decide to repeat Boxing Day on January 7.
When it comes to this match and to this time in human history, don’t rule anything out.
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