Melbourne and the MCG, Boxing Day test days 1 & 2 (and 3)

Narrow view of cricket, back of a covered stand
View from gate 1, MCG – better in person than it looks.

In a day or two I may look back on these words and shake my head sadly, but for now the cricket is full of possibility. Finally England look rock-solid, thanks to Alastair Cook not just scoring a few runs, but marching to a century. Australia’s first strike bowler out injured, his replacement, Bird, looking accurate and testing, but not so quick, and Cummins suffering an illness that robbed him of 5mph. Today, for the first time, the scoreboard did not contain one of ‘match fastest balls’ or ‘fastest bowlers in this match’, that information deemed unimportant while two of Australia’s bowlers were missing and Broad, whisper it, had hit 89mph anyway.

I arrived in Melbourne on Christmas Eve and rode the train out to Coburg, where my AirBnB room is. Coburg seems a nice suburb, a mix of nations, houses squashed in in places, but rows of neat lawns linked by concrete pavements, with a path along Merri Creek behind the houses to give a bike route into the city. My host showed me round, then disappeared. He has only lived here a couple of months, and has already converted the lounge into a bedroom. I picked him for a gamer, up late to enjoy more competition from more populous countries in different timezones, aiming to rent out rooms so as to supplement work. In fact, given that he didn’t surface till 4pm, I wonder if he is aiming not to work at all, though it is Christmas and even the Aussies get a day or two off.

At any rate, a tram ride on the no.1 took me into the city and despite walking the wrong way from the central station at first, I was in the ground before the first ball was bowled. Not quite the same spine-tingling feeling as I’d had in 2013, partly because I’d had to rush a bit, only soaking up any atmosphere at the end of my walk as I finally joined the throngs of people heading in, and partly because I only had a general admission ticket, and didn’t bother heading up to the 4th level, immediately finding a standing spot behind seats on level 1 which I figured would be the best view I was likely to get.

As ever, the Guardian do a good job of summing up the atmosphere. I suspect many haven’t noticed, but with a rolling crew of Vic Marks, Selvey and Gideon Haigh giving the many others involved something to aspire to, I reckon their coverage is the best. Certainly the beeb and Times have spotted their over by over coverage and done a Sky on it (that is, taken the concept and yet not managed to do it as well as the original despite greater resources). At any rate, I enjoyed a variation on the classic ‘watch on telly with radio commentary’ (not so doable now the TV has a satellite delay, though I haven’t tested it here, where cricket can still be popular among kids because it is on free-to-air TV), with ‘watch in the ground, read the over-by-over’.

Day one was slow. Not actually ‘boring’, as the half-English, half-Australian lady called it, very disparaging of Warner finally slowing down as he neared his century; “I get that it’s good for his stats’. It seemed very unfair, but he scored so quickly early on, that his slowing later may have looked super slow. The greatest moment, for the noise it generated and the pure theatre, came when England, with Tom Curran’s regular slower ball to confuse, set Warner up nicely to spoon one in the air with a wall of fielders in front and he duly did on 99, caught by Broad. Cue a huge noise from the England fans, who were still singing as the replay showed a possible no-ball. Now the noise swung as the Aussies drowned out the England fans. The noise! My goodness. Brilliant.

Warner was out soon afterwards, his innings looking better and better as England totally slowed Australia’s scoring. They’ve not always had two batsmen motoring at the crease, and that’s almost been their secret – Bancroft was way out of form, barely contributing runs, but England still had to bowl to him, and meanwhile Warner will always score, so just hang in there and if nothing else, tire out the bowlers. Several of their partnerships have been, or have started, in similar one-sided fashion.

It was slow, though, and I wandered outside for lunch, not returning immediately. Four lads were playing a boisterous game on the green sward right outside the MCG, and I was impressed that they were happy to let 5 other lads join in after they’d first walked by to eat, then come back. You might expect some rutting heads, or inter-group competitiveness, but they passed the bat round happily. Meanwhile a family had joined to my right, their boys hovering on the side, and soon a couple of the lads waved them into proper fielding positions, in the thick of it. With the next wicket, the eldest was given the bat, the bowler’s mark was moved forward, and his brother was given the ball. Fielders crowded round, so it was competitive, even intimidating, but they’d included the boys so effortlessly and so simply that it was a beautiful thing. Other youngsters were included, too, the bat moving round the group quickly. Lunch ended inside the stadium and everyone moved off. The parting shot reached my ears, fading on the wind as they left, “yeah, but the real game’s out here, right mate?”

Pick-up game outside the MCG
Everyone welcome to the game outside the MCG.

With Australia well set at the end of the day, I patted myself on the back at my good judgment in only having tickets for the first two days. Dare we hope to get Australia out for 350? Well, it’s possible. It seemed more likely that we’d all watch Australia bat, then put England in, we’d hope again and they’d lose at least one wicket too many.

View from a seat
View from a seat, block M7, gate 4, row Y. Shaded till 1ish.

I didn’t rush, though, and a huge roar greeted me as I, um, got my bags checked to go in. “Smith out bowled”, said the bloke from St Albans cricket club behind me “I hate you” – this to his mate, who perhaps had insisted on slightly too lavish a breakfast. I’ve hoped before, though, and now the scene was set for the Marshes to do the damage instead, with Ali bowling and leaking runs. The Australian crowd booed, the English hmmed in anticipation as Ali was swapped for Broad, and it started to happen. Three Australian batters pulled the ball onto their stumps, finally the luck that England needed. Crucially, Cummins looked comfortable but for once didn’t have a mainstream batsman for comfort, and Broad and Anderson were on to give nothing away. I had a seat today, and watched from there up until lunch. Broad appealed loudly for LBW against Marsh, and it wasn’t given. But something seemed different – normally he looks confident, but with an air of bullying ‘come on, give it to me’. This time his face was much more ‘but, but – that was out!’. They reviewed it, and sure enough, it was plumb. Never mind hearing the noise when Warner was repealed, I was in the ground when Broad got a review right.

314-6, and the OBO commented ‘What England would give for another before lunch’. They got two, Paine out despite looking totally comfortable, and lunch-watchman Bird out despite killing time with a review. One more and they could have extended play, but it didn’t matter – ill Cummins was next out, and with Lyon and Hazlewood at the crease, for a change the tail wasn’t wagging, and it just felt like a matter of time till the last wicket fell. And it was.

IMG_20171227_153313906-1024x768
Back in the stands. The T-shirt in front of me said ‘Ashes tour, England v Australia’. Lovely. The phone cannot do it justice – the whole thing is in colour to the naked eye.

The sun had crept over my position during lunch, so I made the most of sitting down, watching it creep toward me, then stood up. I ended up next to a Southerner, here for just a week to fulfil a lifelong dream to see this match. He had also been sat in a sunny seat early on, surrounded by Aussies. When Smith chopped on he announced ‘see, no problem with our fast bowlers – he’s been beaten for pace!’. He liked the joke; I heard it three times. He was in for four days no matter what, but we enjoyed the opening part of the innings, hoping for a 50 partnership but not getting it, Stoneman out after a solid beginning. Something seemed different with Cook, though – he looked comfortable. Lack of pace in the attack? Helped by there finally being a sense that if they see off one bowler (Hazlewood) it will get easier? Or just the result of practice? It is a very odd thing that when things are bad (like England losing 3-0) everything can be painted in a bad light. I’d read in the week that Cook had spent hours and hours in the net since the last test, and how that showed he was short on confidence.

View over the MCG from the fourth tier
View over the MCG from the fourth tier.

Normally, you’d just point to it showing his level of desire. And that looks more like the outcome – he has hit a groove. It felt different, and the Barmy Army started up. Their song is a dirge, really, but starts well – ‘We are the army, the Barmy Army’, which you can sing at different speeds to good effect. As more people join in, the noise of that builds. Then the rest of the tune throws it away a bit. And they’re not ‘men-al’ at all. But still, the noise was magnificent, as first 50, then 70, then 100 people sang, England fans making their way to the group to join in, raise arms and sing as Cook moved towards his fifty.

Australians, meanwhile, were drinking, and hiding the beer cups, to build beer snakes. A few popped up later on in the day, to great cheers and laughter. Apparently it is a police matter, and the men in black appeared to take down pesky snakes. Frankly, the police did themselves no favours throwing people out; presumably for ‘disorderly conduct’, though I would like to see a lawyer challenges any justification, it seems tenuous to me. A snake of cups might be mildly distracting, but the crowd loves it, they make a noise, they link up chains of cups and that’s it. The ones at the Gabba got much bigger, and were mostly allowed to peter out. By all means stop it getting out of hand and spreading where people don’t want it, but the sight of police officers pushing people around, removing whoever they’d decided was the ringleader (snake builder?) just looked pathetic at best, and bullying at worst. After a while the stewards dealt with them, which was at least more in keeping with the level of offence. Meanwhile I had a small group of Aussies behind me who had the Aussie foghorn voice. There are usually a few of these, with tremendous volume. This lot moved from singing ‘AAAA-LAAAA-STAAAAAAIIIIIR’ to a great long sledge, “A-LAAAA-STAIR!!! YOU’RE THE ONLY CAPTAIN IN HISTORY TO HAVE STAYED IN THE TEAM WHILE THEIR MATE HAS TAKEN OVER! IF YOU WERE AUSTRALIAN YOU’D BE PLAYING IN THE BIG BASH!”. Which was pretty amusing, partly for being so convoluted, partly for the confidence involved in building for so long at that volume to such a specific punchline.

As the day ended, it was all about the landmarks. A lad next to me, only partly watching, reckoned Root would get his 50 and Cook end on 99. I thought the latter generous – Cook was only in the 80s, he’d just knuckle down and aim to be there tomorrow. But the lad nearly got it right. Cook pushed a single from the first ball with four overs to go, waved away a second run and left Root with all five to finish it off. He didn’t. But come the final over, Smith came on to bowl himself, with Cook on 93. Yeah, fair enough, tempt him, but also, probably, tie him down, unwilling to risk anything against a lesser bowler. Yet the first ball was a juicy full-toss, smacked to the boundary, and Cook was on 97. A clip to leg and they hustled, getting 2. Surely! Surely he’d get 100, and an awful lot of people would have to eat their words…and yes, Cook made it to 104, that last over ended up as a gift.

Plenty of room for it all to go wrong, but for now, the Australians don’t look indomitable, their use of the review system is not the best, and England have had an honest-to-goodness properly good day – excepting any ‘score 100 off 100 balls and lose no wickets’ pure fantasies, all pretty much as good as anyone could have hoped for.

_______

I was staying in Melbourne on Thursday, but hadn’t planned to go to the cricket. Given the situation, I figured I ought to, finally feeling some confidence in the team. The MCG is so big that other than perhaps the first day, you can pretty much just turn up and buy a ticket. Doing so also avoids the handling fees, which I had also done with a theatre ticket the evening before (Book of Mormon, later in January, woo hoo!). Another general admission ticket for $30 AUD and I was in, standing on level 1 for a while before finding a seat up on level 4.

It was fairly cloudy all day, with a burst of sun in the morning and afternoon, and rain for my walk home. A fabulous day’s cricket, starting to swing Australia’s way as Root gave his wicket away, furious with himself, throwing his gloves to the floor behind the boundary and leaving them there as he stomped off. When Malan was out – though not, had he only reviewed it – it was in the balance, and 20 odd runs from Bairstow and skittish Ali weren’t really enough. Ali at least got a few runs, but was in a hurry – one reporter commented ‘I hope he at least caught his train’. He was shown how to do it by Woakes, who struggled, scoring singles with Cook, but they laid the foundations, hitting a partnership of 50. And that wasn’t the whole point, as their work in using up overs had aged the ball and tired the bowlers, which meant that after Curran came in for only a short innings, Broad could ride a roughing up by the quick bowlers before taking us back to 2010-11, scoring first a useful 20, then going on and putting on a 100 partnership with Cook. For a while, they batted and took runs at will – apparently they’ve never batted together before, but they formed a good partnership, calling and running well together. They’ve known each for long enough for that to work, I suppose.

I thought Cook scoring a century yesterday was satisfying and memorable, but English and Australian alike stood to applaud the 200 when he got there. Magnificent.

Even Broad’s dismissal was entertaining. Khawaja took a decent catch on the dive, rolling over it to cast some doubt, so Broad reviewed the decision. Replay after replay followed, and it was never going to be totally clear. Broad put his helmet back on, in case any of the Aussies weren’t going to boo him off and get him worked up – he said it was hard to overturn a ‘soft decision once given’ when interviewed, but it looked out to me and the Aussie next to me*.

But still, the Barmy Army stayed in full voice, hardly stopping singing, and it was magnificent. By the end of the day, with fewer England boundaries to cheer, they adopted Jackson Bird. As he whirled his arms, warming up, they gave a big wooooooaaaaaa, with ahhhhhh following the full action. He carried on warming up, then stopped one mid-action, to huge applause. When he bowled, to Anderson, I think he’d have got a huge cheer had he got him out. And during the final over, the song was ‘We love you Jackson, we do’, followed by ‘We love you Nathan, we do’. Just great.

Score board showing Cook's score of 244*
Change the record books – Alastair Cook has the highest score ever at the MCG.

* with hindsight, he wasn’t though. That ball is dropped.

TV shows Khawaja dropping the ball.
TV shows Khawaja dropping the ball.

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