By Bharath Ramaraj
The Boxing Day Test match played every year between Australia and another full member Test nation at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) has always been a memorable event in the calendar of Test cricket. In the past, ‘Boxing Day’ traditionally was known as the day following Christmas, where servants and tradesmen got their much cherished gifts from their employers. Nowadays, it is officially known as the bank holiday that follows Christmas.
In this article, let us look at some of the most fascinating and edge of the seat Tests that were held at the MCG in the last two decades.
Australia vs West Indies 1992
Two decades ago when the formidable West Indies team took on the home side Australia, MCG was far away from the modern day redeveloped and refurbished state-of-the-art stadium. Yes, the new Great Stand was built in time for the 1992 Cricket World Cup extravaganza. However, the ground got a complete new look to it when it was restructured before the Commonwealth Games in 2006.
If we jog back our memory, the West Indies team in 1992 still had a fine side on paper. They hadn’t yet lost their carnassial teeth and sharp claws of a lion to shudder the opposition with its towering giant quickies and rip-roaring batsmen. The likes of Ian Bishop, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose made up a mighty fine troika of pacers. Richie Richardson, Carl Hooper, Desmond Haynes and the young Prince of Trinidad, Brian Lara were the cornerstones of the batting line-up. On the other end of the spectrum, even then, Australia seemed to be the one side that could topple the Windies from their throne.
Australia on what was definitely a dicey track, won a good toss and elected to bat. At 115 for 4 in the first innings, the situation didn’t seem rosy for the Australian setup. It was Mark Waugh‘s breathtaking batmasnship and Allan Border playing with gusto that took Australia to a position of strength.
Mark Waugh only when needed would bring out the pull shot to counter the pace attack. With the Windies bowling a barrage of short pitched stuff, he went for the jugular by essaying a few pulls. With Waugh at the crease, on expected lines the flick shot glowed brightly from his majestic willow, as he played them with panache and elegance. Border with his fierce cuts and debonair pulls chugged the score along. The naturally aggressive Mark Waugh was the first one to reach the three-figure mark. It has to be said that his soul-lifting century at the MCG is arguably underrated by cricket historians. One has to remember that it came on a treacherous track against a very good pace attack too. Border soon followed him with his 25th Test hundred. Interestingly, for someone known to have stood up to the Windies bowling line-up like a true Atlas in the early 1980s, this century was only his first hundred since 1983-84 season against the West Indies.
West Indies also would have rued the fact that the usually reliable David Williams made some costly mistakes behind the wickets in the first innings. He missed a stumping off Hooper’s bowling when Mark Waugh hadn’t yet got his bearings and again on 71 off Bishop’s bowling. Border too early on had offered a tough chance for Williams to take on the leg-side off Ambrose’s bowling. But Williams dropped that one too. Finally, Williams did take an outstanding catch to send Mark Waugh back to the pavilion, but the damage was already done.
With a score of 359 runs on the board, Australia’s lion-hearted pacer Merv Hughes scythed through the Windies batting line-up. He also would reminisce the Test match fondly, as he reached the coveted landmark of 150 wickets. Just when Lara and the enigmatic Keith Arthurton brick-by-brick were looking to build an edifice, the ‘Ice Man’ Steve Waugh snared Athrturton’s wicket. It resulted in Australian spearhead Craig McDermott orchestrating a collapse with the West Indies tail folding up like nine pins.
By the time West Indies were bowled out for 233, Australia had a sizeable lead of 126 runs. Yet, in the second innings, they trudged along at a snail’s pace. Mark Waugh, known for playing with gambling instincts and eye-catching fluency, played with utmost caution. In fact, Mark Taylor at top of the order took more than four hours for a mere 42 runs. It was the young and fearless Damien Martyn who came out guns blazing to essay a quick-fire 67 not out (quick-fire knock when one considers the fact that it came on a deteriorating track). Martyn’s innings helped Australia to set West Indies what seemed like an above par score of 359 on a dicey track that was keeping low. West Indies surely had a monumental task on their hands. The seam-up delivery from Phil Simmons that shot through the pitch to shatter David Boon’s stumps in the second innings gives an inkling about the enormity of task that West Indies was about to face in their last dig.
However, Phil Simmons and Richie Richardson gave a few scares in the Australian camp with an enterprising century partnership. The way Simmons tackled Warne was an eye-opener for his detractors. But just when West Indies seemed to be making a match out of it from nowhere, the Wizard of Oz, Shane Warne took over to run through the line-up and complete an amazing win for the hosts. Before the Windies batsmen knew what had hit them, Warne with his bagful of tricks had already hammered the final in the coffin.
If Richardson was prized out by a top-spinner that kept low to send his stumps for a walk then, Arthurton was teased and tempted to dance down the wicket, only for Ian Healy to complete the formality with a sharp piece of stumping. Simmons still battling it out with impregnable defence was caught at short mid-wicket by Boon off Warne’s bowling. Actually, Simmons’s knock of 110 was arguably the best innings of his career. Warne with his flight and guile waltzed through the rest of the line-up, as Australia won by a convincing margin of 139 runs. Deservedly, Warne was adjudicated as the Man-of-the-Match. Border and his men were all smiles, but at the end of five match series, they were in for a rude shock, as West Indies came back from the dead to retain the Frank Worrell Trophy 2-1.
Australia vs West Indies 1996
By the time West Indies came to the shores of Australia in 1996-97, they had already lost their grip on the Frank Worrell Trophy in 1995. Yet, the old warhorses from the Caribbean Islands were expected to give Australia a run for their money.
On a track with a bit of early juice in it, Australian captain Mark Taylor won the toss and elected to bat. His opposite number, Walsh wouldn’t have exactly been displeased with that decision either. It was a Test match in which Ambrose woke from his deep slumber after a rather slightly below par performance in the first two Tests to make inroads into the Australian batting line-up. Mathew Hayden known for plonking his front-foot virtually every time in his career looked like a fish out of water, while facing up to the back of a length bowling from West Indies quickies. Ambrose then pitched it up inviting the drive and Hayden’s eyes lit up, only for him to edge it to the slip fielder, Hooper. Taylor struggling for form was cleaned up by Ambrose with the one that nipped back off the seam. He also took the key wicket of Mark Waugh for a first ball duck with a fullish delivery that again nipped back off the seam considerably to trap him dead in front. The columnist suddenly rekindled memories of Ambrose bowling a similar delivery to Waugh in the 1996 World Cup semi-final at Mohali when he trapped him plumb in front.
Steve Waugh and Greg Blewett tried to steady the ship, but Bishop and Kenneth Benjamin struck crucial blows to wrap up Australia’s innings for 219. Australia though, came roaring back to waltz through the West Indies’ line-up for a modest score of 255. Glenn McGrath was the star of the show with a five-wicket haul. The highlight of his spell was how McGrath went around the wicket and with a bit of cut back into the left-handed Lara and extra bounce enticed him to play an uppish drive on the back-foot and was caught in the slips by Warne. Lara losing the plot to McGrath bowling from around the wicket became a regular feature in the years to come.
Despite getting a slender lead of 36 runs, West Indies’ pacemen proceeded to engineer a collapse in the Australian ranks. It was yet again Ambrose who was in the thick of things of by taking four for 17. Kenny Benjamin and Walsh gave him able support as well. It resulted in Australia setting West Indies a meager target of 87 which they chased it down for the loss of four wickets.
Australia vs England, 1998
By the time both teams were about to take the field at the MCG, Australia had retained the Ashes for the umpteenth time. All England had left was to restore some pride by winning at the MCG. They did exactly that by winning a humdinger of a match.
Australian captain Taylor won the toss and rather surprisingly elected to field. His opposite number Alec Stewart was under heavy scrutiny for not just losing the Ashes series, but his own form wasn’t anything to write home about. However, after Michael Atherton lost his wicket to his nemesis McGrath, Stewart decided to meet fire with fire with some explosive strokes. With his rapier like cuts and debonair pulls he gave even the cool as cucumber Taylor a few headaches. Unfortunately from England’s perspective, only Nasser Hussain and the enigmatic Mark Ramprakash gave him good company. Despite Stewart’s thrill-a-minute century, England only managed a modest total of 270 on the board.
When Mark Waugh was given out leg-before the wicket perhaps wrongly by umpire Steve Bucknor, Australia were in a spot of bother. But the tormentor of England throughout the 1990s, Steve Waugh essayed a century to take them past England’s first innings score. England’s seamers tried every little trick in the trade including the tactic of bouncing out Steve Waugh, but Waugh weathered the storm by handling the seamers with consummate mastery.
In England’s second innings at 221 for nine, they looked set to crash down to another heavy defeat at the hands of their arch-rivals. But the rabbit with a willow in hand, Alan Mullaly played a few curious looking hoicks to annoy McGrath and more so perhaps it lifted the sagging spirits of Englishmen.
Chasing down a paltry score of 175, Australia still looked set to steamroll England. In fact, with the Waugh brothers at the crease, it seemed like a matter of time before Australia would seal an easy win. Just in the nick of time though, Dean Headley took Mark Waugh’s wicket with the one that shaped away from the right-hander to catch the edge of the bat. Waugh didn’t do any favours to himself by playing with a slightly angled bat. It reignited the spirits of Headley, as by generating movement off the track he ran through the Australian middle and lower-order in what turned out to be a truly inspiring spell. A few Australian batsmen especially, Darren Lehmann have to take a fair share of the blame for that collapse, as they played reckless shots.
Steve Waugh was still batting when last man McGrath walked into bat. However, Darren Gough closed the door on Australia by nipping out McGrath with an in-swinging yorker to complete a fabulous win by a mere margin of 12 runs. The wild celebrations of the England team showed how much a victory against Australia meant to them.
Australia vs India, 2003
Australia went into the third Test match against India that season after being shell-shocked by a rejuvenated Indian setup at Adelaide. They were missing a few key players like McGrath, Warne and Jason Gillespie. India though, were cock- a-hoop after their stunning victory at the Adelaide Oval.
India won the toss and on a belter of a track chose to bat first. Virender Sehwag, well-known for his audacious stroke-play and raw courage, pumelled the opposition for the next few hours. Those ferocious cuts from his bat travelled at the speed of red-lightning. Stuart MacGill in particular came in for some harsh treatment. However, the entertaining innings came to a rather comical end when he tried to launch Simon Katich’s full toss into the orbit, only for Nathan Bracken to compete the catch. Once Sehwag got out, India lost the plot and they were bowled out for 366.
Australia rode on the back of some brilliant batsmanship from the bedrocks of their batting line-up — Hayden and Ricky Ponting. The latter even completed his second double ton of the series. India in their second innings at 160 for three and that too with VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid at the crease, looked on course to escape with a well-earned draw. But Victorian pacer Brad Williams dashed India’s hopes with a four-wicket haul. Australia duly chased down a paltry target of 95 runs to level the series 1-1.
Australia vs South Africa, 2008
As the years ticked by, the once all-conquering Australian line-up looked beatable even while playing at home. Most of the glittering stars of the yesteryear had retired. At the Western Australian Cricket Association (WACA) Ground, when South Africa chased down a monstrous fourth innings target of 414 in the first Test of the series, it became even more evident that Australia was in a transitional phase.
However, for a brief period in the second Test at the MCG, Australia seemed to hold all the aces up their sleeve. The old warhorse Ponting who loved to bat at the MCG scored a glorious century to take Australia to 394. Peter Siddle backed up his captain’s efforts by taking early wickets. At 184 for 7, Australia looked well on course to hand South Africa a heavy defeat. Now that was the time when the pillar of Australian pace attack Brett Lee went down with a foot injury. With just three bowlers to play with, South Africa had a sniff of a chance to launch a magnificent comeback.
The precociously talented JP Duminy did just that with his sparkling century. The felicitous stroke-play and his assuredness at the crease belied his age. South African pace spearhead Dale Steyn also played a key role in their extraordinary comeback with a gutsy half-century.
Steyn then went onto bowl with fire and brimstone to take a five-for and clean up Australia for a score of 247. The reverse swing and venomous pace he generated on a slightly abrasive surface proved to be too hot to handle for the Australian batsmen. Their captain Ponting though, yet again shone brightly with his innings of 99.
Steyn’s crackerjack spell meant that South Africa needed 183 runs to seal their first Test series victory against Australia Down Under. South African captain Graeme Smith led from the front to take them to a historic series win.
As England take on hosts Australia in the fourth Test of the Ashes 2013-14 series, one can only hope that it would turn out to be another see-saw battle made up of sub-plots leaving scribes and fans chewing their nails in sheer excitement.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)
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