27th December, Australia, in their endeavour to establish a hefty first-innings lead against England, fall well short of their expectations. Eventually, Australia fashion an 82-run lead – a tally that still seems significant but leaves the door slightly ajar for the visitors to barge through.
There is a bit of restlessness around the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Not because they’ve seen an uncharacteristic collapse from Australia, but also because they feel that Australia should’ve put this game to bed by now. Against teams such as England, that is easier said than done. Against this English side though, it was perhaps the bare minimum.
Mitchell Starc marks out his run-up to bowl. He has Haseeb Hameed in front of him – a batter who looks devoid of confidence and if given the opportunity, would’ve been anywhere but at the MCG. Zak Crawley, meanwhile, had bettered his average for the year by scoring 12 in the first innings.
Over the next few minutes, Starc and Pat Cummins produce one of the most irresistible spells of fast bowling witnessed in Australia. They make the English batters hop like cats on a hot tin roof, incessantly ask probing questions and ultimately, get the better of them.
Starc, by the way, accounts for Crawley and Dawid Malan off consecutive deliveries, meaning that the MCG crowd, which had elicited a few murmurs of discontent when Australia were batting, was now at its raucous best. In other words, they were making England feel that they were thousands of miles away from home – both literally and metaphorically.
For a lot of cricket-watching folks in Australia, the rampant display by Cummins and Starc would’ve been the event they would’ve been waiting for. Cummins, at this point, is probably the premier Test pacer on the planet, whereas Starc, when at his best, warrants a mention in that conversation too.
Yet, those at the MCG weren’t content with just watching Cummins and Starc. Instead, they were waiting with bated breath, hoping that their local hero, aka Scott Boland would arrive at the party and gatecrash it like few debutants before him have ever done.
Boland, all bulked up and ready for a contest, hammers in to bowl for Australia. The first ball he delivers leaves the batter outside off stump and allows Hameed to shoulder arms. The next ball is a little closer to the stumps but the length means that Hameed is content to let it go again.
Then Boland gets it right. And, Hameed, as has been the case this series, gets it awfully wrong. The ball pitches in the channel, deviates just a shade and takes the outside edge – an edge that flies towards Alex Carey, who makes absolutely no mistake. A couple of balls later, he produces another sumptuous delivery - this time, castling Jack Leach.
In a jiffy, the MCG erupts and breaks into the kind of response you would usually expect at a colosseum when their favourite gladiator is on show.
During Cummins and Starc’s spell, there were moments when the MCG rose to its feet and saluted two bowlers in their pomp. When Boland got into the act, though, they stood up, witnessed what was unfolding in front of their eyes and never felt the urge to reclaim their seats. If Boland was, at least in terms of the crowd reaction, outdoing Cummins and Starc, you knew he was doing something right.
On Day 3 of the 3rd Test, however, Boland raised the level considerably. Even England, who were staring down the barrel, wouldn’t have thought that the game would be wrapped up before Lunch. Boland, though, did. And, on a day when everything he touched turned to wickets, that was most certainly enough.
Throughout his supreme spell of fast bowling, the pacer stuck to his strengths. He kept attacking the channel just outside off stump and got the odd ball to seam away.
Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow – the two batters who had largely kept Australia at bay in the first innings, succumbed to Boland in that very manner. While Bairstow was trapped on the back pad and was adjudged LBW, Root wafted at a delivery and was caught in the slip cordon.
Boland scalped six wickets on his Test debut for Australia
Ultimately, Boland (he also picked up the wickets of Mark Wood and Ollie Robinson) ended with a six-wicket haul, breaking several records in the process. He attained his five-wicket haul off 19 balls, which is the fastest any bowler has ever done in Test cricket.
He also ensured that Australia secured an innings victory, despite only scoring 267 in their opening essay. No other men’s team this century has done that with such a low total.
The most amazing bit, though, is that many in Australia felt that Boland’s brilliance at the MCG was a foregone conclusion. Not just because he has been born and brought up on these pitches, but also because he has thoroughly thrived in these conditions.
In his last four First-Class games at the MCG (before the Ashes), he had bagged 29 wickets, roughly equating to seven wickets a game and 3.5 wickets per innings. That, by the way, also included four instances where he picked four wickets or more in an essay.
To add further context, Boland was selected by Australia because he has been dubbed an MCG specialist – a tag that he lived up to on Tuesday and a tag that will forever be part of his legend.
Astonishingly enough, this performance does not guarantee any future Australia appearances for the fast bowler. He was specifically brought into the fold for the battle at the MCG and if Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Starc are fit, it’s pretty hard to decipher if and how he can fit into their attack.
He will not fret over it too much though. Instead, he might just want to wheel away quietly, soak in the applause and most importantly, pinch himself that all of this – especially at the MCG, actually happened.
For a major chunk of the 3rd Ashes Test, Boland brought the MCG to its feet and enabled a city that has been locked down and bogged down in the COVID-19 era, to let their hair down and just enjoy the moment.
Years ago, this sort of reception and response at the MCG was reserved for the greatest to have ever played the game for Australia (Shane Warne and the likes) or cult heroes in the truest sense (hello Merv Hughes).
Under ordinary circumstances, Boland wouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as those two. For a couple of days at the MCG, though, he was everything Australia would’ve wanted him to be and of course, everything that Melbourne was anxiously hoping he would be.
The world, especially with COVID-19 relentlessly tightening its grip, can become a dreary place to live in. Yet, when cricketers like Boland script their own fairy tale and etch themselves into cricketing folklore, you can’t help but feel that things will be alright at some point. And, that the restlessness and uneasiness can give way to pure joy.
There is nothing quite like home, is it Scott Boland?
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