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Australia have the better of Pakistan on rain-drenched first day in Melbourne

The Guardian logo The Guardian 26-12-2016 Russell Jackson at the MCG
The cult of Nathan Lyon grew a little strong on day one of the Boxing Day Test as Pakistan’s batsmen were spared further damage by the intervention of rain in Melbourne. © Ratnayake/REX/Shutterstock The cult of Nathan Lyon grew a little strong on day one of the Boxing Day Test as Pakistan’s batsmen were spared further damage by the intervention of rain in Melbourne.

Pakistan finished at 142-4 on a rain-soaked first day of the second Test as dismal conditions prevented any play after tea at the MCG. As far as Melbourne weather happenings go it was quite typical, coming as it did a day after the sun had shone unstintingly for all of Christmas day and well into Test eve.

The frustration was mostly Australia’s after three-quarters of their bowling attack had gained a gradual ascendancy, with only Mitchell Starc missing out on a wicket, though he always looked capable. Spinner Nathan Lyon finished with one wicket for the day but his strange cult continues to spread throughout the land and at times early in the day it appeared as though large portions of the crowd had rolled up to see him alone.

The day started in a reverent and celebratory mood when representatives of the Mullagh-Wills Foundation – so named for Australia’s first sporting great Tom Wills and his team-mate Johnny Mullagh – gathered at the sacred and rare scarred tree in the MCG’s surrounds, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the game between a Wills-led Aboriginal XI and the Melbourne Cricket Club. Today’s participants were completing a long journey from the Western District, the region from which the bulk of that 1866 team was drawn.

In a cricket scene no longer given to wistful strolls through the past, it was a welcome reminder of the depth and permanence of Indigenous Australian culture but also its fragility; estimates as to the tree’s age vary from 200-800 years but its long-term survival, much like that of Test cricket, is not assured. A similar tree in Yarra Park has already perished.

Day I: Pakistan: 142/4 against Australia

Like today’s sides, the 1866 Aboriginals and their opponents weathered a stiflingly-hot Christmas Day before their encounter. There the similarities end. Unlike the stroke-per-ball Aboriginals’ first-day collapse 150 years ago, Pakistan made steady progress early and did so by virtue of batting abstinence, blunting the opening spells of a slightly off-kilter Starc and luckless Josh Hazlewood.

That foxing merely set the scene for the introduction of spinner Lyon, who has suffered a curious fate in the last few weeks. After the national embarrassment of Hobart he only kept his place in this side at all due to an injury to his NSW team-mate Steve O’Keefe. Now, thanks in no small part to the constant verbal barrages of wicket-keeper Matthew Wade, the off-spinner is a kind of walking, talking internet meme. Grown men at the ground today had their faces painted with his nickname. “Nice Garry” said one, in honour of Wade’s war cry.

When Lyon merely began his warm-up routine during the 11th over of the day, almost the entire southern side of the ground rose to its feet as one to salute its new cult hero. Lyon didn’t disappoint, immediately tempting Sami Aslam forward and claiming an edge, which Steve Smith accepted with relish at first slip. In excess of 50,000 fans thus reached a state of early and uninhibited delirium in honour of man who felt friendless and jilted only weeks ago.

With diligence and a refusal to be swallowed up by crowd enthusiasm, Azhar Ali and Babar Azam made a decent fist of recovering, compiling an industrious 42-run stand across 14 overs before lunch until Babar was ushered towards quite maddening self-destruction by Hazlewood. On what would always have been the final ball of the session Babar nibbled away when his bat should have been half-tucked under his arm for the walk off the ground. As it was he made the journey alone and doubtless humbled.

After the resumption a similar pattern emerged – veteran Younus Khan this time stewarding the total to 111 with the immovable Azhar before departing in similarly momentum-defying fashion as Babar when he was clean bowled by Jackson Bird, who finished with 2-53 from 15.5 overs. Hazlewood’s 1-15 from 13 overs was less eye-catching but every bit as valuable.

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In a more condensed fashion the Tasmanian quick followed the zero-to-hero path of Lyon today; in the first session Bird looked utterly pedestrian but whatever he munched down on in the break had dramatic impact. Soon the right-armer was cutting the ball back in to the right-handers with venom and had an oddly-scattered Misbah flicking an inside edge to a diving Nic Maddinson at short leg. Unconquered Azhar and Brisbane Test hero Shafiq practically sprinted from the ground when the umpires called for the covers ten minutes before tea.

Melbourne is nothing if not diverse in its cultural leanings and often fond of inventing traditions of its own. Despite the potential for a heavy fine for disorderly conduct – an appropriately bizarre and seemingly arbitrary $1,138.00, as advertised on the ground’s giant screens – one among a large group of men dressed as Oompa Loompas was seen skolling beer from his shoe soon after lunch.

Rain dampened such exuberant spirits in the end and not every bit of cricket bristled with invention, but history was everywhere to see in Melbourne today if you looked hard enough. At the toss of the coin Faith Thomas – the first Aboriginal woman to represent any national sporting team when she played Test cricket for Australia in 1958 – provided a vital link to the untold story of Aboriginal cricket in Australia, but also gave pause for sombre reflection that so few others followed in her footsteps.

Thomas, we discovered this week, learned to bowl fast as a young girl by “chuckin’ rocks at Galahs”, and it was easy to think of cricket’s earthy charms when a player as experienced and wise as Pakistan’s veteran Younus was castled so effortlessly as he was by Jackson Bird today. One thing that hasn’t changed at all in 150 years is the way cricket can make you look a mug.

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