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At last, the Boxing Day Test can avoid being the embarrassment of the year

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Expert
18th December, 2018
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It’s alive. Aliiiiiive. The Boxing Day Test has been a dead affair for years, but finally we’ve got one that counts.

In truth, Boxing Day has become a Frankenstein’s monster. Cobbled together out of all kinds of disparate parts: a social event, a sporting calendar tick, a bucket-list item, and a political photo-op.

An occasion feted for being an occasion, rather than a sporting contest of any worth.

For years, the actual cricket has been a non-event. Only in the 2010-11 Ashes was Melbourne pivotal to the series. In swinging conditions, England blew Australia away in session one.

In the two Ashes since, the series has been wrapped up with a 3-0 lead by the time we got to the supposed biggest occasion.

Some other series have been technically live, but part of three-Test editions against teams who were never likely to compete: Pakistan in 2016, West Indies in 2015, Sri Lanka in 2012.

But the number of times a marquee series against an in-form rival has approached its business end with a must-win Melbourne match – it feels like an aeon.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m from Melbourne, and proudly so. When it was 45 degrees in Dubai in October I was the guy still getting around in flannel shirts and black jeans. You can take the boy out of the Retreat Hotel…

But as much as I’d prefer not to say it, the Boxing Day Test has become an embarrassment. Every year we invite the attention of the country and the cricketing world to our city, talk it up like it’s the biggest thing in the year, and every year we fail to deliver a decent match.

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It’s like asking your friends around for Christmas but your drunk uncle goes on a rampage about franking credits and the turkey is dry and no one can go into the backyard because it’s pissing down rain but somehow it’s still uncomfortably humid and the air-con is faulty and the television breaks so you can’t watch the cricket but that’s just as well because it’s the bloody Boxing Day Test.

Last year was the most infamous, on a pitch so turgid and featureless that they could have left it there for the intervening 365 days and Alastair Cook would still be batting. Changeless, indestructible, it must have been made of army rations.

But the year before that, an exciting finish on day five came after a dreary set of days one through four, and was only possible due to a late burst of Mitchell Starc brilliance and an equal burst of Pakistan incompetence.

Mitchell Starc

Mitchell Starc (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

The dreary MCG wickets go back a long way now. Victoria have barely had a result in the past few seasons of Sheffield Shield.

And Boxing Day crowds reflect that, not in size but in attitude. Yes, the place gets packed out in the morning. But that’s because it’s become a tradition to go, not because of the game. Half the potential spectators spend the whole day in the bar, shouting conversations at each other and occasionally pretending to glance at the TV.

Guys (and it’s always guys) who won’t watch another minute of cricket the year round repeat some lines they heard on the train and pretend to sound knowledgeable. “Nathan Lyon, he just bowls too fast sometimes, you know?”

But with the fare on show, nobody could blame them.

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Part of that won’t change this year. But part of it will. Virat Kohli’s spikiness and Tim Paine’s smartarse retorts have amused people. India’s bowlers have worked relentlessly as a pack. India’s batsmen have produced two outstanding hundreds. Australia’s have not, but the team has still fought its way to 1-1.

All of this has brought the series to life. And now it seats neatly in the balance, with all three results possible.

After all the pitch scrutiny from last year, including an official ‘poor’ rating from the match referee, former WACA curator Matt Page is doing everything he can to perk up the MCG track. Drainage sand, clay additions, and I daresay a fair bit of grass given the success of the thatch in Adelaide and Perth.

But it’s after this season that the big change will come. The drop-ins are old and tired, and it’s probably time to start over. As reported on ESPNcricinfo, Page will now import the methods used for the Perth Stadium drop-in, which is also run by his former WACA staff.

That method, in turn, was imported from Adelaide when the renovated Oval switched to drop-ins. The main feature is that instead of using concrete trays that block drainage and breathing, they’ll use porous trays supported on pylons, to let things move more freely.

And really, what problem can’t be solved with porous trays and pylons?

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So from next season, the Boxing Day Test could find its conditions lively indeed. But then, don’t get too far ahead. We’ve been burned before.

For this year, it will be a matter of making do. And of course for the series, the best MCG result would be a draw, sending the teams to Sydney with all to play for.

But let’s hope, for Melbourne’s sake and for the series, that any draw is a Dubai epic rather than a futile slog. Let’s hope the changes work and the players rise to the challenge. Let’s hope the actual match is worthy of the occasion.

This time, Melbourne can change what’s on offer.