After two-and-a-bit rainy days, the Boxing Day Test has made up for lost time thanks to four innings of contrasting styles but equal effect. Variously, Azhar Ali made the first double century by a Pakistani in , Sohail Khan his first 50 and David Warner his first MCG Test hundred and his first anywhere for nearly a year. Usman Khawaja’s 95 not out was not a first, but it was timeless.
If that makes bowlers sound like incidentals, they were. Their strike rate was poorer than Kiss Cam’s. The counterpoint was a 150km/h nuclear flash of a ball from Wahab Riaz immediately after tea that clean bowled Warner, then 81, but was called “no ball”, one of a rash for Wahab. In the way of Test cricket, that one bowler’s transgression might yet count for more than all the batting virtuosity.
Predictably, Bay 13 gave Wahab an ironic ovation. Less forseeably, and mostly nobly, he then signed a few autographs for them. His bowling continued to have a Kiss Cam-like effect, often prompting an alarmed reflex, but nothing more, until at last he hustled Warner into a hook shot which kissed his glove most chastely and was caught by the wicketkeeper. Warner had made a run-a-ball 144 and the complexion of the game has changed.
Immensity, novelty, vitality were the batting keynotes. Azhar’s 205 not out, the second-highest score made by a visiting batsmen at the MCG, was a vast 10-hour opus, started and restarted a dozen times in a dozen different circumstances over three days. It was distinguished not by its range of great shots but that so few were false, a deceptively simple feat over such a span. Where the ball was bowled he played it, hour upon hour. Indeed, when the need for speed arose and he tried to slog, his efforts were amateurish and quickly abandoned. It was endearing.
Sohail gave the match the shove it needed. His preamble was a scoop from Nathan Lyon that Steve Smith, running from slip to leg slip, anticipated, yet somehow passed inside him. Gratified, also amused, Sohail then launched the hapless Lyon for four sixes, each progressively longer than the last, and suddenly had his maiden Test 50. Momentarily, he fumbled about for an appropriate response, as if lost for words, until Azhar hugged him. His innings was a cat among the seagulls.
Warner’s innings was a different calibre again. His beginning was so rough as to make emery paper look like marble. He could hardly get bat on ball – one he missed by so much that the confused Pakistanis referred it to the third umpire, wrongly thinking catch behind – but when he did, the ball took a battering. This is his great strength as a batsman, that he needs neither to be balanced, nor to hit the ball in the middle for it to fly away for four, and sometimes even a ball that looks about to burst through his fortifications he will jam to the boundary, too, and so his minimum scoring rate is brisk.
Once in, he is one of few batsmen able to invert the idea of bowling as attack and batting as defence. This was one of his less fluent innings, and still it occupied less than four hours, go to whoa. Usman Khawaja fell in alongside, almost unnoticed, and in an instant, they had put on 198. Whereas Warner muscles the ball, Khawaja, his bat and the ball all seem to be of a piece, his runs as flowing as cursive writing. You watch Khawaja, you watch out for Warner.
Pakistan did not bowl especially poorly, but luck was not with them, nor did their eccentric tactics work, though Wahab eventually did get his man. This is the second of three Tests between these countries in little more than three weeks. For batsmen, this means many opportunities, with little time either to bask or brood. For bowlers, it means double jeopardy; they are being tried twice, and it is showing,
The sunshine flooded in, a warm breeze blew, flags flapped, more than 25,000 were kept in good cheer and all was well in the world. But, says the forecast, Thursday is another day.