For those who had gotten used to the shock of the new provided by consecutive day-night Tests, the arrival of Boxing Day would hark back to something far more traditional: a morning start, a red ball, a heaving crowd at the MCG and the festive atmosphere of one of cricket’s great set-piece occasions. Which of the teams would best rise to it, though?
Australia’s players got the fright of their lives when a Gabba Test they had dominated seemed to be slipping away from them, momentarily, via the cultured hands of Asad Shafiq and the Pakistan tail. Mitchell Starc struck in the nick of time to secure the victory, but the physical toll it took on him, Josh Hazlewood and others was clear. In deciding to ignore the allrounder Hilton Cartwright, Australia’s selectors have presented the hosts with the chance to seal the series with an unchanged team. Doing so would finish a year of some tribulation with greater optimism than had seemed likely when South Africa were humiliating a rather different-looking team in Hobart. But, the four-bowler combination that Pakistan seemed to get used to by the end of the Gabba Test faced plenty of hard graft before that scenario could unfold.
Pakistan, of course, were widely regarded as the moral victors of a match they seemed certain to lose by a vast margin. Clearly, they finished it far better than they started and enter into the second Test with a lot more confidence than they did the first. One thing that has to change, however, was the balance of the bowling attack and the way in which it was utilised. Australia lost only 15 wickets in Brisbane, and much of the time Misbah-ul-Haq seemed preoccupied with containment rather than wicket-taking. At the MCG, a ground that has been known to favour reverse-swing in the past, there has to be more accent on the positive if Pakistan were to fight their way back into the series.
Though he felt the roar of a mighty MCG crowd on World Cup Final day in 2015, Mitchell Starc would experience Boxing Day from the middle for the very first time. Last summer he was injured, the summer before dropped, injured again the season before that and controversially rested in 2012 in order to preserve him for later assignments. Starc wasn’t happy about it at the time and said so; the irony this time around was that he would be entering the Test under a physical cloud – via the huge volume of overs he ploughed through at the Gabba.
Proud as he was about how Pakistan fought in Brisbane after a grim start, Misbah-ul-Haq was a harried figure at the batting crease, struggling for rhythm and to cope with the extra bounce in the Gabba surface. If Pakistan were to square the series they need a more even contribution down their batting order, and as captain Misbah must take up a large chunk of that responsibility. Well as Shafiq played with the tail in Brisbane, Test matches are generally run through top-order runs made in the first innings.