Consumed by cricket's unlikely love-in
Of the many useless conversations in cricket, the thousands predicting that rain will ruin a day's play are perhaps the most tedious. Promised rain almost never comes. I think about this in bed as I debate whether I should be getting ready to go to the Test. The Test is not my only match today, so I don't want to get there early and sit around watching rain, knowing I will not be under the Docklands roof to see Melbourne Renegades host Perth Scorchers until near midnight.
The MCG might be the greatest place in the world, but it has no roof. Although there has been a rumour that it will one day, for now it has to rely on the fact that the rain shows some respect and moves around it. My phone weather apps suggest there will be no play; the bureau of meteorology website suggests there will be some play. So after procrastinating for a little while, I decide to trust the radar and not some random app.
I head to the ground via the same train line I first used 30 years earlier. There are not many fans on it, far fewer than there have been on other days. It's day four, it's supposed to bucket down, and this match has been the cricket equivalent of watching someone read a book for days. The fact there are any fans on the train is encouraging. I sit near someone in a 2003-era ODI shirt and check my phone to see that Bangladesh are having a good day.
At Jolimont station I get off the train and run through the MCG car park just in time to see Usman Khawaja out in the 90s, something he wanted as few people as possible to see. Luckily for him, there is practically no one there. It feels like a Sheffield Shield crowd, and not a big one like the '03-'04 final, but a small one, like pretty much every other Shield match here.
People on Twitter are already suggesting worrying signs for Test cricket. Like English TV presenter Mark Austin, who wrote, "Why Test cricket is dying #AUSvPAK #MCG" next to a picture of the empty ground. Why the crowd wouldn't be low when the game has started earlier than usual, on day four, under the threat of apocalyptic rain and when we haven't yet got halfway through the second innings is anyone's guess.
But the lack of a crowd seems to make Peter Handscomb play like he's in a Shield game. He is far more relaxed than he has been so far in Tests. And he picks up his fifty. Alongside him, Steve Smith has been perhaps uncharacteristically tentative. That would usually obsess me, but instead I'm making a fantasy fielding XI and watching clips of Sydney Thunder teams misfielding.
At lunch I'm invited to the MCC committee room, which is near-empty, like most of the ground, and I have lunch with others from the media and also Bob Lloyd. I become a human Statsguru and start working my way through his career, looking for hidden nuggets. Who is his one first-class wicket? Ah, Tom Veivers. What was it like facing Wes Hall? Ah, not good. And do you know that in your last first-class game, which was Greg Chappell's first, you outscored him in both innings? Ah, of course you did. I talk to Bob as Mohammad Amir's luck continues to mean that almost absolutely nothing goes right with him, and I wonder out loud if karma is a real thing.
From there I head to the MCC library, where I meet Doug Ackerly, who has a copy of his new book, Front Foot! The Law That Changed Cricket. His book is about how the front-foot no-ball law has led to fast bowlers getting injured more often. I have no idea if Doug is right, but it's probably going to be more interesting than the latest ghosted autobiography that is a taped-together version of already forgotten tour diaries.
By the time I finish that chat, the rain has set in. I annoy Bill Lawry by asking him about what information they were given in his day on their stats (predictably none). Check my phone to see now Bangladesh are having a bad day. Watch Channel Nine's re-broadcast of David Boon batting against England in 1990-91. All while waiting for the day to be called off.
My plan originally was to walk between the two grounds and enjoy Melbourne in the early evening. But Melbourne is flooded, and so I take the tram. There one MCC employee tries optimistically to suggest to her friend that there could be a result in this Test. Her friend, who is a few years older, slowly shakes her head.
At Docklands, I walk into the hot sweaty concrete box and remember why I always hated this ground. It was hot outside the ground, but under that roof, even Alastair Cook would sweat (not that I am saying he's about to become a Big Basher). There I catch up with new-cricket-media types, Cat Jones of the Can't Bowl, Can't Throw podcast, and Dan Liebke, famed member of the cricket Twitterati. We talk about nonsense as the motocross jumps are put together on the ground. Doubtless it's all very reminiscent of Neville Cardus and Plum Warner's chats.
While many think in-ground entertainment gimmicks are a new thing started for limited-overs games, its history in Melbourne goes back a lot further than that. The first ever English cricket tour to Australia in 1861 had a hot-air balloon turn up at lunch at the MCG to entertain those with a short attention span.
There is also an instruction on the screen for newcomers to the games, called Big Bash Basics. Voiced by the least excited man in the ground, he talks about how exciting the cricket is, and about a potential Super Over. That seems optimistic. He also mentions that a fast game is a good game; but a fast game in T20 is usually a horribly one-sided cesspool. There is no cesspool at the game, but Nickelodeon hosts are running around, probably hoping to slime someone as part of their partnership with Cricket Australia. There are also mascots: Sledge, the male mascot, and Willow, the female. Mascots are a staple at T20, but they only work for people over 16 when they are falling over in a race.
Aaron Finch is opening up for Renegades; he hit a ball into the top tier last game here. No man in the Big Bash has ever made more runs at one venue than Finch has at the Docklands. He is a T20 specialist and a specialist at a T20-specialist ground. While Finch and Cameron White get some big hits away, the innings slowly loses air, and by the end, it's a limp T20 total.
Then there is more motocross, and some in-ground pyrotechnics, after which the smoke hangs around for a very long time. I spend most of the break looking for new T20 batting metrics and talking about it with former Victoria cricketer Adam Crosthwaite. Then I check how stuffed Sri Lanka are. It turns out, quite stuffed.
Someone on Twitter points out to me that there was no one at the MCG today and there were plenty of people at the Big Bash, so Test cricket is surely dying. The crowd at the Big Bash was roughly the same size of the crowd on day three of the Test. There have been 135,999 people go through the gates at the MCG to a game that was drowned by day two. Here, under a roof, with Dwayne Bravo, Finch, Brad Hogg and Sunil Narine, when kids don't have to go to school tomorrow, with a game where absolutely anything could happen, they got the same crowd. It's not a bad crowd. Had it not been raining, and the streets of Melbourne hadn't literally been flooded, it might have been more.
This may be a two-team town, but the Docklands is a one-team venue. And their team is trying to use a wicket that will help their quality spin duo of Hogg and Narine beat Scorchers. But they lose three overs from Bravo when his hamstring pops, and Hogg gets picked on by his former team-mates, and Nathan Rimmington has a shocker. Scorchers are walking to victory, needing 19 off 18, and all they have to do is keep Michael Klinger and Mitch Marsh at the crease.
The crowd is flat; I sense that not only am I going to see a mostly washed-out day of a pointless Test, but finish it up with a one-sided, low-scoring T20. I get angry when Finch makes it easy for them and doesn't bring the field in. This is it, his last chance, Narine's last over is his only chance of winning. But his tactics don't matter, a leading edge from Klinger floats back to Narine, and the crowd wakes up. And I get interested.
Ashton Turner can't get off strike for much of Narine's over, and 19 off 18, a doddle, a dawdle, a bloody easy chase with two set batsmen is suddenly 16 off 12 with only one set batsman. But Rimmington is back, and his three overs for 38 makes no one bar Marsh excited about what might happen. His first ball is slapped like it deserved it by Marsh, next ball Marsh gets off strike, and Turner gets the sort of ball Marsh would have destroyed, but Turner hits it straight to the deep sweeper. Marsh is so shocked he stops running and doesn't cross with Turner. So they have made two mistakes on one ball, and instead of the in-form batsman facing the out-of-sorts bowler, the last two balls of the over are only singles. The 19 off 18 is now nervous nine from six.
But Renegades are finished with all their bowlers, and the only player who can bowl the last over is Finch, because cricket's new law is that you can't use a spinner who spins the ball into a batsman in a T20 game. It's not quite indisputable but it is when it's Tom Cooper's part time offspin to Marsh. Perhaps on a turgid low pitch, with two tailenders in and with one of the main floodlights not working, Finch would be favourite, but to Marsh, tonight, it could end in two balls.
Marsh faces two balls; he mishits the first for two. The second ball is the kind bowled by a part-time bowler who wasn't thinking he'd need to bowl and who is now saddled with the most important over of the match. It doesn't come out of his fingers right, it just pops out of the top accidentally and floats down the wicket like a naked lamb in front of a starving T-Rex. Its only redeeming feature is it is so bad that Marsh struggles to reach it, and when he tries to crush the life out of it, he drags it to long-on: straight to long-on. Finch's cream-pie floater has drowned Marsh.
The next ball, Adam Voges, he of the cricket-defying Test average, can only mishit the ball near Finch and set off for a run. Finch, a throwback to when cricketers had a friendly middle of their body, runs, turns and throws as if his body was designed for each purpose, and Voges is out. Finch has two in two, his ground is rocking, his team-mates can't believe it, and Scorchers have gone from playing a blinder to playing blind.
Now it's Ashton Agar, who in two straight hoicks gets agreed-upon twos to the leg side. The 19 from 18, against an injured and malfunctioning bowling attack that needed Aaron Bloody Finch as the death bowler, is now three off one.
There is a chat about the last ball and I think about my day. Today I sat in a library talking cricket, watched a young man make a Test fifty at his home ground, thought about karma and its relationship to left-arm swing, and saw what looked like a tedious T20 match turn into a last-ball-to-win-it game. It was all cricket and I loved every part of it. We talk about cricket so much like it's in an ideological war with itself, and really, we might be in one of its greatest love-ins.
And I look at Finch. Aaron Bloody Finch, that flawed cricketer, the guy who nicks off to second slip like it's a religious imperative, who has never been the athlete that modern coaches want, who hardly scores runs in first-class cricket, and who, when he has too, rolls his arm over a bit. And I want Finch, Aaron Bloody Finch, to ice the game with his left-arm filthy doorknobs. I want it bad. Just one more ball, just get it down there, use that low-arm action, sling it, make it dribble into the outfield. If they get a one, Aaron Bloody Finch is a hero, if they get a two, it's a Super Over.
Finch doesn't find the low part of Agar's bat, he finds the middle, and unlike Marsh's attempt at playing a Finch full toss, Agar clears the field with his. The crowd, me, everyone, just yell, noise, everything. It doesn't feel like a long day now, it feels like a great day.
I ignore what appear to be thousands of conversations about Test cricket v T20 that cricket fans argue over. I think of this city, the place that held the first Test, which today held three games of cricket. Fans of all types, Test, women's and T20, cricket sadists and first-timers, kids and the elderly, left their homes, turned on their TVs, listened to their radios and opened up their apps to follow a whole day's cricket.
On the train home I think about the young me as the train I caught at Docklands Southern Cross passes the MCG's Jolimont station. Had you told him that he would have had the chance to have an entire day of cricket in his home city, he wouldn't have worried about rain or sleep, he would have been on that train as early as he could be, as excited as he could be.
Some will say I started at cricket's past before going to its future. In truth, I spent all day in its present. Today I went to two cricket games, followed another online, and when I finally get home, I'll watch another. It wasn't always a perfect day, but it was a total cricket day, I'm not sure I can make a prediction on the future of cricket, but I can say I loved my day.
When I get home, Sri Lanka are three down, and the forecast says rain again in Melbourne.
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber