TEnglish fans who only pay attention to cricket in Australia every four years might expect the third Ashes Test to be some type of match. This would be based on England’s last visit to Melbourne Cricket Ground in 2017, for a match played on a ground so dead that the biggest sporting event on Victoria’s calendar was more of a state funeral.
What we saw that year was a horticultural wonder, as no one could take anyone out, but also no one could score. The stick oozed along in a mush of poorly timed punches, and the primary mode of occasional dismissal seemed to be cut deliveries to the stumps. After days of this the large sign above the Percy Beames bar carrying the highest score off the ground by a visiting player saw Alastair Cook’s 244 sadly replacing Vivian Richards’ masterpiece 208 . At least they both got the knight title.
This time around, things could be different. English correspondents express bemusement that Australians use the title ‘curator’ for those preparing the pitch, but of course we do – it’s the best of the arts. After 2017, the MCG persuaded Matt Page to relocate the states and relinquish trusteeship of the land for the two Perth lands. In a gradual process that culminated in the last year, Page has successfully revived the CWM reception desk.
So on Boxing Day 2020 we saw a slightly green surface that was full of juice and life, giving vigor to fast bowlers on both sides. India took top honors via Mohammed Siraj and Jasprit Bumrah, Australia played well via Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, and it was a wicket true enough for Ajinkya Rahane to dig for a turning century. There was also bounce and grip for the finger spinners on both sides, who took 11 wickets between them. It was an exciting contest, done late on the fourth day.
No curator can just roll out the same surface again, but if Page can pull off anything that comes close to last year’s effort, it’ll be a fitting step for a contest. As deflated as the whole camp is, England’s seam attack could still pull something useful from such a surface and push the series back. It won’t be of much use without the help of the English bat, who are as likely to struggle here as they are anywhere.
Staff changes in the top six are likely, but if there were any potential replacements with good credentials to play, they would already be there. As to which Australian bowlers they’ll face is a much more open question. Josh Hazlewood will be spending Christmas in Melbourne but reportedly not playing. Mitchell Starc had back problems last time around and is facing 14 out of 23 cricket days. Cameron Green was held up by fitness staff on the last day in Adelaide. Jhye Richardson made a big change there after not playing a test for almost three years. Michael Neser recently had hamstring problems.
In the team comes Scott Boland, apparently as a blanket for everyone. With two days to go, Australian coach Justin Langer said Starc would likely play and Green’s treatment was just a precaution for a young player. Cummins will return, and one of Neser or Richardson will surely be right. Boland probably won’t play, but if he does, he’s a sharp pitcher who hits hard and takes his wickets for Victoria at the MCG at an average of 25.
The crowds will also be different for this visit in 2021. Coping while surrounded by 70,000 people is still a rare experience in professional cricket, but it will be less intense than the 90,000 or more who usually prepare the day after. Christmas for an Ashes tour. The Covid rate in Melbourne will keep some people at home, as for all of MCC’s assurances about protocols, there is no way that safety standards can be maintained all day at crash points and bars. .
For those who do come, however, the final point of difference is important: the series is still live. In 2006, 2013 and 2017, the Ashes were closed 3-0 before the Boxing Day Test. With the revised schedule in 2021, it has become the third Test, which is much more convincing. A fifth test later in January is also great for the calendar. Cricket Australia should learn and retain this for years to come. If the MCG’s pitch can change, anything can change.