BOXING DAY TEST: At least numbers a reason to cheer

THERE was one much anticipated feat of record-breaking at the MCG on Boxing Day.

The crowd of 91,092 was the biggest recorded in cricket history, surpassing the 90,800 at the same venue for a West Indies match in 1961.

The crowd cheered for itself, and well it might; not much else on the day warranted an ovation until Australia’s new-ball wrench near the end.

Until then, it had been a day of falling tantalisingly short.

Australia, having sent England in, would have hoped for more than four wickets with the first new ball and six for the day.

England, desperate to redeem some pride this summer, would have wanted more than 226 for those wickets.

The crowd, keyed to expect minute by minute drama — or so Cricket Australia tells us — would have expected more bang for its buck.

Strangely enough, they mostly went home in blithe spirit.

The keystone moment was triggered when England’s enigmatic Kevin Pietersen played a panicky hook at Australian pace bowler Ryan Harris.

At fine leg, substitute fieldsman Nathan Coulter-Nile clutched the catch overhead, but overbalanced in the act and stumbled across the boundary rope.

Drawing on what has become a practised skill in T20 cricket, Coulter-Nile tried to recover by flinging the ball into the air as he went, hoping to catch it again inside the field of play.

But it flew instead into the crowd.

That assisted six would be one of only three boundaries struck by Pietersen in the first 50 of his 67 not out, a tortuous four-hour innings admirable mostly for the fact that it is not yet over.

To give you a feel, the next time he essayed an attacking shot an hour or two later, he managed only to slog-drive a catch to mid-on, where George Bailey juggled and dropped it, and Pietersen, in reprimanding himself, half-swallowed a fly.

It was a wholly indigestible passage of play.

Three dynamics determined the shape of the day.

One was Australia’s insurmountable lead in the series, obviating urgency on either side.

The second was Australian captain Michael Clarke’s decision to put England in, apparently a surprise even to himself.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we’ll bowl,” he said.

The third was a groin niggle for Shane Watson, invaliding out of the attack after just six-and-a-bit overs.

The lesson of the series was that this staring match could have only one ultimate outcome.

Australia’s bowlers were what they have been in nine matches against England this year, a Hydra.

As ever, there were wickets for all except off-spinner Nathan Lyon, who at times outbowled them all.

Mitch Johnson was a little wayward with the first new ball, but deadly with the second.

Harris and Peter Siddle were relentless with old ball and new.

Watson, in his brief deployment, produced the most artful wicket when he fooled Michael Carberry into leaving what looked like a replica of his previous outswinger, but swung in and bowled him.

Carberry has spent the series devising new ways to get out.

Pietersen endured.

Embarrassed to have fallen so often into obvious Australian traps this summer, he was determined to the point of perversity not to play the loose legside shots Australia wanted him to play, and Australia was just as determined that he would.

So he became Odysseus, with wax in his ears (as well as a fly in his mouth), tied to the mast of his previous dereliction of duty.

So he and Australia went at it all day, in a state of mutually assured inertia.

As Test cricket, a test of cricket, it was absorbing.

Whether it was the cricket this vast crowd wanted or appreciated is a moot point.

The majority at least could point to the scoreboard.

The minority, the Barmy Army, held their vocal own until Johnson’s withering late burst, whereupon the Australian players gestured theatrically with fingers to lips for them to be silent.

Like the Barmy Army, Pietersen’s theme was this: if you can’t beat them, annoy them.

He succeeded.

His parting non-shot was to spend inordinate minutes prodding at fanciful tufts on the pitch, the better to delay Johnson and hasten stumps.

Like all of his efforts this day, it was a studied exercise in doing nothing.

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