The cricket starts before I see it.
It begins before the welcome to country, the notes of national anthems echoing out of the Southern Stand, and taking my place in the coffee line where an already exhausted barista nods through my order.
It begins on the walk from the railway station, under the deep shade of elm trees that cool the air so abruptly it’s as if I’ve dived into water.
I approach the MCG full of optimism that Joe Burns could overcome his demons and have more success after his first Test half century, that our bowling attack – arguably our best ever – will again reduce India to rubble, that Cameron Green will demonstrate his pedigree after his Australia A century, and most importantly that Australia will again triumph over India.
Gate 5 bumps into view as I daydream of our success over a team surely scarred by the result of the Adelaide Test.
Those feelings contrast to leaving the ground on the fourth day. Indian fans gathered in groups, joyously dancing to music, loud and radiant with their success. I made the inevitable joke about the descent from the ground being similar to the one experienced in the Australian team.
Clusters of young men gathered in spaces outside the ground, furiously bowling wides while beer-affected batsmen swung wildly at every delivery. An official with a microphone announced she hoped we’d had a good day and to enjoy a safe journey home. I speculated that I must have heard the word safe more than any other during this COVID-19-affected year.
My friends and family argue about where it all went wrong. We expect a lot from our sporting heroes. I’d seen Matthew Wade joking with team members as Pat Cummins ground away at a partnership and wanted to chastise him that nothing could be funny at a time like this. I wanted to ask why the fielding was so poor? What makes Travis Head lose concentration just as he should be settling in?
What contributes to our batting under-performing so consistently against India and did it mean our coaching and preparation was somehow failing the players? Or were our players failing the coaching? Why isn’t poor shot selection better addressed? Were the selectors contributing to the problem by continuing to pick Joe Burns, a man appearing totally awkward from the ankles up? I can empathise – my coach once told me my best foot work at the crease was when I walked off after being given out.
At times we forget our cricket team are flesh and blood. In the corporate job I once occupied, no doubt there were many occasions when I under-performed. But for every time I missed a deadline, overspent the budget or delivered something under expectation, I didn’t have my name plastered over social media about how I should be sacked. That has been Joe Burns’ life since the start of the season. Surely Burns has no confidence, self esteem or belief to call on after so much failure in the public view.
While I know many find fault with the opener, I call out the selectors. Continuing to pick him has done Burns no favours. He shouldn’t have played from the first Test and possibly even the second Australia A game. After being omitted he should have been encouraged to resume during the remaining Sheffield Shield games and make himself a front-line contender for next year’s Ashes tour, if not any opportunities between now and then.
I imagined what it must be like in the Australian change room. Was it filled with that silence that follows falling on the couch after the relatives leave after Christmas? Were the bowlers up one end sulking about doing all the work, including much of the batting? While I doubt Justin Langer would allow that to happen, I couldn’t entirely blame them.
Meanwhile, before this tour I found it difficult to understand why India would return to Australia so soon after the series win of two years ago. But now it makes sense. They could bring back their experience of our conditions and knowledge of our team to give themselves the best chance of repeating their achievements from that tour. They could once and for all rid themselves of the stigma of only having defeated an under-strength team, missing David Warner and Steve Smith. After never beating Australia on tour, they could stamp themselves as one of the greatest teams by accomplishing that twice.
It’s only days to the Sydney Test. The question keeping us up at night is can Australia come back? In particular can they fight back the way India did, especially after being routed for their lowest score ever in the first Test.
It’s not hard to imagine the intense self examination and hard work India carried out to win the Boxing Day Test. Can Australia demonstrate similar determination and fortitude to regain the series lead?
Will our batsmen go beyond the 194, 2-93, 195 and 200 scores so far this series? Another loss would place Australia relying on our record and conditions at the Gabba in Brisbane to level the series.
Only recently many of us sat exasperated, laptop balanced on knees, waiting to buy tickets while suspecting the internet would crash at any moment. We finished Christmas knee deep in dirty plates and wrapping paper before preparing the turkey rolls for Boxing Day, rousing ourselves to be up and on our way early enough to be at the MCG for the first ball.
We did it because we believe in the Australian cricket team.
Soon we will find out if they believe in themselves.