Flying high: David Warner celebrates his century. Photo: Andy BrownbillPakistan 9 dec for 443. 2 for 278.
Azhar Ali’s faultless 205 was the highest score by a visiting batsman in Melbourne since 32 summers ago, when Vivian Richards arrived at the MCG in career-worst form. Having made 162 runs from his previous 12 innings, Richards groped and clawed his way to a thoroughly unconvincing 208 from 245 balls.
Only the rarest of batting talents can make Test cricket look easy. Rarer still are those who can persuade the scoreboard to tell lies for them, giving their numbers the appearance of ease when the game has clearly become a hard grind. David Warner belongs to this circle within a circle. He came to his unhappiest hunting ground this week with moderate recent and local form, yet was still able to churn out a match-changing century.
When Warner and Matthew Renshaw opened the n innings, they had been fielding for so long they may well have forgotten how to bat. A mood of despondency had fallen over the n effort. Warner, who before the game placed public pressure on himself to rectify his mediocre record in Melbourne, dropped a catch: not an easy one, but one that he, alone among the n fieldsmen, was expected to take.
The auguries were not good, and soon Mohammed Amir tied Warner up with a leg-stump line and a cramping length. Warner shares one thing – and only one thing – in common with his rival as the most prolific opening batsman of the current era, England’s Alastair Cook. Both can make it futile for bowlers to focus on their favoured corridor of fourth or fifth stump, Cook because he will have nothing to do with such deliveries, and Warner because he harvests them so heavily. His run-making is so prodigious on the off-side, with a range of cuts, drives and jabs, that bowlers can only turn to the counter-instinctive remedy of bowling on the stumps, where he can get himself off strike with a glanced single. As with Cook, the bowlers are often left with a kind of Catch-22.
And so it was that even though Warner was struggling to find the middle of the bat, he could look up at the scoreboard and see his name rattling along towards 50. It must be infuriating for everyone else on the field to see that a fellow who is battling to lay bat on ball has somehow got to 30 off 40 balls. Renshaw saw this too, and reacted in the most human way, trying to hoick up his scoring rate. He will learn, as Chris Rogers did before him, that Warner must, like everything else, be blotted out of the mind. Usman Khawaja has learnt this, and, with typical insouciance, he played his own sweet game, complementing his partner and building yet another innings of substance.
Warner, meanwhile, forged ahead by sheer will power. He scored a century of runs on the off-side alone, with only leftovers on the leg-side. Wahab Riaz had the ball reverse-swinging at high pace but, unfortunately for him, was not bowling it from the required distance. His only way to pierce Warner’s defence was to creep over the line. Despite losing his run-up and the plot, Wahab continued to stir the pot, but Warner was in that mood, like Richards back in 1984, where he would take his runs ugly, if ugly was what it took.
His hundred – achieved, as if the story needed telling in one stroke, with an under-edge off Amir – was his 17th in Test cricket and his first since his 30th birthday. It is too soon to say if it marks a new phase in a career that has progressed under what might be called false pretences. Under the mask of a T20 slogger, Warner’s actual reputation is in the longest form of the game; bouncing onto the stage as a rodeo clown, he has turned out to be a leading actor in cricket’s serious drama.
For this game, his contribution wrought a sudden change in tempo and possibility. Thanks to rain and the pitch, this Boxing Day Test match has been made of a rough, stubborn clay. Pakistan’s batting tried to make something of it by pressing down into a state of hopelessness. ‘s only way of shaping the match was to take it by force and score quickly. Thanks to Warner’s innings, which ended at 144 when he gloved Wahab down the leg side, the ns have given themselves a chance. Posterity will note that he scored at a run a ball, suggesting that he breezed along, but this scorecard will be a suborned witness, like that one back in 1984, perjuring itself on the batsman’s behalf.