Visitors cast as a kind of next best
IT IS said that Boxing Day is for going to the cricket, and the subsequent days of the Melbourne Test for watching it.
IT IS said that Boxing Day is for going to the cricket, and the subsequent days of the Melbourne Test for watching it. This reflects the sense of robust ritual that would prevail at the MCG no matter who was playing. That this year's visitor is Sri Lanka emphasises it.The crowd is bound to be full-sized, but from Thursday it will be far smaller but more focused. Even the gathering at the Christmas Day nets was sparser than usual. Seemingly for diehards as well as players, it was optional.The sense of a Boxing Day Test in a lower key is sharpened by a roll call. Australian captain Michael Clarke, officially the world's No. 1 batsman, is doubtful. Mitchell Starc, who took the last four wickets to deliver victory to Australia in the first Test in Hobart, is out. So are three other Australian fast bowlers, who are injured. Starc, under a controversial policy, is being rested in case of injury.Muthiah Muralidaran is Sri Lanka's greatest bowler, Lasith Malinga its fastest. Both are here, both still active professional cricketers, but both are unavailable for Test cricket. It means Sri Lanka's attack is the namesake of one of Colombo's oldest first-class clubs, the Nondescripts.Mostly, the opposition on Boxing Day is heavyweight. In the "special events" mentality of modern sports promotion, it has to be. But South Africa, this season's major tourist, insisted on going home for it own Boxing Day special. So the Sri Lankans arrive cast not as taking their turn, but as a kind of next best.This is always their lot. Sri Lanka's only other MCG Test was Ricky Ponting's second for Australia, 17 years ago. This one is the second since his retirement. Between times, Sri Lanka has made Test appearances in Darwin, Cairns and Hobart, but not Melbourne. Stylish stalwarts Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara together have scored more than 20,000 Test runs, but not one at the MCG. At least that anomaly will be put right on Wednesday.Sri Lanka's last Boxing Day went down in infamy as the day Australian umpire Darrell Hair called Muralidaran for throwing. Muted questions about his action had been raised previously, but this felt to the Sri Lankans like a calculated public humiliation, a putting of their man in stocks. The fallout was bitter, and festered for years. Muralidaran did not modify his action, but the ICC did its rules. In time, Muralidaran became Test cricket's greatest wicket-taker, but he remained wary of Australia, once threatening never to return.Three months after that, Sri Lanka beat Australia in the World Cup final. For them, it was a seemingly telling step in an ambitious plan to become the No. 1 cricket country by 2000. It didn't come to pass. Today, Sri Lanka is ranked sixth in Test cricket. It still boasts only one Test win against Australia.It has achieved greater distinction in the shorter forms. In T20, it has beaten Australia at their last three meetings, and is ranked No. 1. In 50-over cricket, the MCG has been something of a happy hunting ground for the Sri Lankans: they won at their first appearance there in 1985, and on Boxing Day 1989, and at their three most recent outings at the 'G, dating back to 2008.But as a Boxing Day CV, it lacks gravitas. Typically, the Sri Lankans bat with elan, but bowl without penetration, as was evident in in Hobart. Here, an irony remains. Time long ago did their healing work, and Muralidaran is back in Melbourne. So is Malinga, in his own way an action attraction. But both are retired from Tests, and are here to play for rival teams in the Big Bash League. If they are at the MCG, it will be as so many others - spectators.One of the peculiarities of today is that Sri Lanka is vastly the more experienced team. By historical standards, this is also an anonymous Australia. For 15 years as Australia bestrode the world, the Melbourne-Sydney Test double acted as annual victory parade. From No. 1 to seven, Australia had men who averaged at least 45 in Test cricket, and then came Warne and McGrath. It rarely changed it didn't have to.But these are more austere times. Now at the top of the Australian order, there are four openers. At the other end, there is yet another different arrangement of four bowlers, including another debutant, Jackson Bird, as the selectors try to pre-empt injuries. The unintentional effect is of a hesitant team taking out lots of insurance.Between these blocs, there is Clarke. If he plays, it will be under an injury cloud. If he doesn't, he leaves a 1489-run hole that is what he has made since the last Boxing Day Test. The captaincy mantle would fall on Shane Watson, which is the way many of the key developments in this enigmatic cricketer's career have befallen him, by happenstance. As he demonstrates, in the maze that is Test cricket, it can work as well as any other force.