Features Icon 1 FEATURES

Gideon Haigh on the Melbourne Boxing Day Massacre

Gideon Haigh on the Melbourne Boxing Day Massacre

Gideon Haigh, who has an English father, and an Australian mother, was born in London in 1965. He now lives in Australia, and indeed was brought up there, so it must presumably be down to the influence of his father that his loyalties in Ashes contests lie where they do – for an Australian reaction to that see Archie’s comments in his review of Ashes 2005: The Greatest Test Series. Many better writers than I have waxed lyrical about Haigh’s qualities as a writer, so I will leave a summary of his talent to one of them, Christopher Douglas, biographer of Douglas Jardine, who described him in The Wisden Cricketer as ‘The star writer of the moment and the latest in a blue-blooded lineage, reaching back to Neville Cardus through C. L. R. James and Matthew Engel, whose allusions soar beyond the boundaries of normal cricket journalism into music, politics and literature. Haigh’s analyses are brilliant.’ To illustrate Douglas’ point Haigh and his publishers have kindly allowed us to reproduce his report on Boxing Day’s historic events, which was written for the Business Spectator, and his reflections on the day’s play, written for The Times.

26 DECEMBER 2010
Day 1
Close of play: England 1st innings 157/0
(AJ Strauss 64*, AN Cook 80*, 47 overs)

It was a record day at the MCG, as expected. The mega crowd did not actually eventuate, 84,245 leaving the fifty-year-old world attendance record intact. The records instead were of ruin: from the lowest Australian first innings at home in almost sixty years, to its lowest in the Ashes at the MCG ever.

As a long day waned, having been prolonged by a rain break, England were 59 runs ahead with all their wickets in hand, Australia having capitulated for 98 in 42.5 overs – ten more runs than they scraped together against Pakistan five months ago, although that was at Headingley while their countrymen were thinking football-shaped thoughts rather than on the biggest day of the local summer. With an unchanged XI and a ring of confidence, Australia allegedly came into this Fourth Test with that sought-after 21st-century quality of “momentum” – just as England did in Perth, in fact. The way things are going, pretty soon we’ll be talking about the curse of momentum.

As batting conditions go, these went. It was cool, overcast, with a little moisture in the pitch as well as the air. In the middle of the day, the bowlers were refreshed by a ninety minute weather hiatus; an outfield rendered slow by football forgave errors of line and length; grass lush from rain preserved the ball’s shine.

Both captains wished to bowl. Only one could. Strauss was blessed – and burdened, because inserting the opposition attracts disproportionate condemnation when it goes wrong. Under such circumstances, a captain wants everything to stick, and Watson vexed him by being dropped twice before he had scored, by Collingwood low to his left at third slip, by Pietersen at head height in the gully. Although neither was straightforward, both fell into the category of chances England have become accustomed to taking. There would have been some sweaty palms in the visiting cordon until Tremlett’s lift caught Watson unawares in the fourth over.

It was a nervous, even slightly messy first hour. Hughes and Ponting, 5ft 7 and 5ft 10 respectively, were repeatedly tucked up by the bounce; both inside-edged close to the stumps. England’s direction was also poor, Prior too often sent skedaddling down the leg side. In one such instance, Prior cost his team a referral for an Anderson delivery that
clearly glanced Hughes’s shirt. His reputation for optimism now precedes him; you would not ask him for a tip on the stockmarket or the races.

Having emerged to a pleasing ovation, and from back-to-back Herald Sun happy-snap front pages, Ponting played the first resounding shots of the day, when he twice pulled short deliveries from Anderson that arrived at a hospitable waist height. But in the next over, Hughes drove expansively with an open blade, a culpable shot, providing Tim Bresnan with a first Ashes wicket.

Ponting fell immediately after drinks when Tremlett, relieving Anderson from the Southern Stand End, found just about the perfect length for this pitch. Australia’s captain departed with a reproachful glance at the pitch, and perhaps a rueful rumination on his luck at the toss: in Ashes Tests, he has now lost more than twice as many as he has won. To the home team’s 37 for three there was a cloying familiarity, the team’s starts in this series having ranged from the calamitous to the merely mediocre: 100 for three in Brisbane, 2 for three and 64 for three in Adelaide, 36 for four and 64 for three in Perth. Hitherto they have relied on Hussey to set them straight; today they did so once too often. Just as the weather closed in, Anderson drew from him a reluctant, firm-footed jab, and an edge that, to English ears, would have reverberated as pleasingly as the peal of a church bell.

Clarke tided Australia over the rain, but he is not the player who last year almost could not stop himself scoring runs; with the exception of his second innings at Adelaide, he has been batting non-start all summer long. He played one firm drive, several harried prods, and his crouch,pronounced in Brisbane, seemed lower than ever, like he was trying to peer underneath a lorry.

The bowling was consistently dangerous, Tremlett, quicker than in Perth, made Stuart Broad’s injury look like England’s greatest stroke of good fortune this summer. Normally inscrutable, he allowed himself one sardonic smile when he beat Hughes’ outside edge, and what bordered on glee when he had Siddle caught behind. Anderson, less talkative and more accurate than in Perth, puzzled the Australians again with his use of the crease, which exaggerates the need to play him. Bresnan, who replaced Finn, filled in the gaps, and dismissed the dangerous Haddin; Prior took six catches without having to dive or even stretch for any of them. With Australia 91 for nine, the stump-cam showed the back of Harris’s bat, which read appropriately “CHAOS”. Funnily enough, he showed as good a defensive technique as anyone, looking comfortable on the back foot, and playing one tasty square cut. When your most composed batsman has a Test average of 6.4, you know you are in trouble.

As the innings ended, both Harris and Hilfenhaus ran for the boundary, either eager to partake of the bowling conditions themselves, or trying to minimise their embarrassment. In the intermission, however, the clouds parted, and the ground, Strauss and Cook were bathed in sunshine; the sideways movement pretty well vanished. England’s openers tucked in eagerly, cutting and pulling with ease, enjoying the trampoline bounce which makes short balls here sit up and beg for punishment.Only Hilfenhaus found the consistency necessary for the circumstances, wringing an affirmative lbw verdict against Alastair Cook (30) from Tony Hill, only to have it countermanded on referral to Ray Erasmus after the replay revealed a thick inside edge.

Australia’s avenging angel at the WACA, Mitchell Johnson, was here distinctly earthbound, his first three overs without pace, accuracy or threat. Most importantly, they hung as shapelessly as Mama Cass’s kaftan. In the second of his two spells from the Members’ End, 3-0-17-0 and 4-0-25-0, Johnson also sent four byes past Haddin’s outstretched right gauntlet that would have brought a gulp of recognition to the throat of anyone who watched him in Brisbane. Standing at mid-off for the sake of his finger, Ponting looked unusually friendless and forlorn. The crowd had already started to thin, the lower terraces left roomy by early, disillusioned departures. The way his team-mates had deserted him earlier, the captain might have yearned to follow them. As it was, the happiest Melburnians today were probably those who, like many members, did not turn up at all.

and the column in The Thunderer

26 DECEMBER 2010
One Out, All Out

“He’s Out”, read the headlines in English newspapers at news of the fall of Bradman. It was tempting to imagine something similar as Michael Hussey disappeared from view into the basement catacombs of the MCG’s Ponsford Stand to leave Australia 58 for four shortly before lunch in this Fourth Test. All summer long, Hussey has been the thin green and gold line, a one-man resistance movement, a reminder of better days. In the first three Tests, he compiled more runs than any batsman in the five Tests of last year’s Ashes. When he was caught at the wicket today, it seemed insufficiently momentous to say that he had merely been dismissed. It felt like the Fall of the House of Hussey.Monsieur Cricket: C’est Fini.

In fact, if you’re to pick Hussey up cheaply anywhere, Melbourne is where you will do it, perhaps because he prefers pace on the ball, perhaps because he can be a tentative starter and quicker bowlers deck it round here. His MCG average is now less than 30, compared to 75 at the other Australian Test grounds.

This was also the reward for thoughtful, patient, probing bowling. Hussey left half the balls bowled to him today, but
England did not grow bored and stray on to the stumps, conceding him easy on-side runs; nor did they bombard him pointlessly, feeding his pull shot, as at Brisbane and Perth. Instead, they counted on a disciplined line, a mostly full length and the influence of the arithmetic mean: sooner or later, the hottest streak must end.

James Anderson had time to bowl only one further delivery, which snaked past Steve Smith’s furtive prod, before rain moved in. Time to reflect; for Australia, time to worry. This had to happen. Now what would they do? It was already almost too late. Smith at number six is a promising cricketer, but as neither batsman nor bowler is he someone to be relied on in Test cricket. If Smith is the answer, you are caused to reflect, what is the question? As Australia’s only slow bowler here and in Perth, he has delivered half a dozen patchy overs. It looked, in the end, a little like a team that thought it could carry the day with a positive attitude, a spring in its step and a bit of baggy-green dreaming. But this was not such an occasion, nor is this a venue at which to rely on fancy and faith. In Melbourne’s broadsheet daily, The Age, Dean Jones devoted a Christmas Eve column to the subject of batting on the first day at the MCG, stressing the importance of circumspection: he entreated Australian batsmen not to drive, to be wary of the pitch’s residual tackiness, to preserve wickets early in order to benefit afterwards. As Smith, Phil Hughes, Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin and Peter Siddle were all dismissed on the front foot, going hard at the moving ball, it was indicative of poor reading habits as well as poor batting.

The example was set early. The contest of opening batsman and bowler is cricket’s Socratic dialogue, inquiry and response, proposition and rebuttal. The first cricketer to make a name for himself on Twitter, Hughes seems to see the game in terms of attitude, aggression and a good time rather than a long time. In Tremlett’s first over, he slashed square and larruped the ball through the covers. England’s bowlers promptly tightened their lines to keep him under control, whereupon he became like a boy threatening to hold his breath until he burst; his open-faced drive on the up to be caught in the gully even as the drinks retinue were waiting by their Gatorwagon was the shot not of a Test opener, which he is meant to be, but of a batsman averaging less than 20 this season, which he is.

Once Ponting had fetched the closest thing to an unplayable delivery all day, it was notable just how minimal was the sense of event about the coming of the rest of the batsmen. Back in the day, the Australian order deployed like the cast of one of those old-fashioned, big-budget star vehicles of the 1960s and 1970s: The Battle of Britain, perhaps, or A Bridge Too Far. It felt like there was no end to the batting. When Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist were at numbers six and seven, it almost seemed to get better as it went on. Not only does this Australian order have no such star quality, it exudes vulnerability. As an observer, you don’t struggle to imagine its weaknesses: Watson’s block about hundreds, Hughes’s block about blocking, Clarke’s back, Ponting’s age, Haddin’s impetuosity. We saw today the batting in its true light, that Hussey has been guiding Australia across a narrow bridge of struggling competitiveness while a chasm of abject failure has yawned beneath. Had he not failed here, the team would simply have been overwhelmed a little later – but it was always going to happen.

You can read our double review of Ashes 2011 here. Published by Aurum at just a penny shy of thirteen pounds the book is a steal – it is available directly via the publisher’s website or from all good booksellers.


BION I\’m impesrsed! Cool post!

Comment by Geralyn | 12:00am BST 7 May 2011

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Martin Chandler