But by 11.10am the rain had become persistent, and it did not stop until 4pm. Play was abandoned at 4.15pm. It had been a melancholy spectacle, but in the small window that did open in the hour before the Fourth Test was scheduled to start, there was enough incident to give the devotees plenty to chew on.
Mark Taylor won the toss for the fourth time in succession. ("Stewart's a useless tosser," was the swift response from the press box.) For the second time in the series, Taylor put England in. He is quite deliberately making a habit of it.
England had decided to play Alex Tudor as the fourth man in an all-pace attack (Peter Such was out), but Tudor reported a niggle and his place went to Angus Fraser. When Tudor fell off the batting order, that made up Alec Stewart's mind for him. After opening stands of 11, 46, 2, 5, 8, and 27 (average 18.16), he decided he would open the batting with Michael Atherton, and Warren Hegg, the Lancashire wicket-keeper, would make his debut. "It's a positive move. We're trying to make something happen in this game," said Graham Gooch, the manager.
A third happening on a dismal morning was the emergence of clear evidence that scapegoating has begun with a rumble on the subject of Bumble, aka David Lloyd, the coach, whose tenure, it is reported, is to be ended after the World Cup in June instead of December when his contract is up. Apparently, this is an idea being spread by his opponents, since Lloyd himself is not at all keen on it, and would expect compensation. It is his bad luck, though, that the chairmanship of the England management committee is passing from his ally Bob Bennett to Brian Bolus, not a noted Lloyd supporter and a keen admirer of Bob Woolmer, the Englishman who is coaching South Africa.
After such a bleak series - so far, at least - victims will inevitably be identified and sacrificed. Lloyd, whose fault is to be ingenuous rather than disingenuous, is certainly a candidate, though not as strong, surely, as the selectors.
The great pity of the day is that the Test on Boxing Day is a fiercely observed local ritual. There are special editions of the papers, and men sneak back early from family Christmases elsewhere. For many, the approach to the ground is delightful, through Treasury and Fitzroy Gardens, where walkers are reminded that possums are an endangered species. The ground is the second largest in the world after Eden Gardens in Calcutta. With 57,000 tickets sold for the day, it was half-full, which was not bad considering the state of the series and the scudding grey clouds. And it is twice as many as can be shoehorned into Lord's on a Saturday.
The most interesting incidents were over and done with, however, before most spectators had taken their seats.
England's selectors had decided not to choose the team until the morning of the game. Gooch explained that they needed to see how much green grass remained on the wicket - Fraser reported later that there is not much. The MCG wicket this year has bounced on day one, flattened into a good batting strip, before cracking, turning and keeping low.
Nevertheless, England chose an unbalanced attack. The idea was to keep Darren Gough, Alan Mullally and Dean Headley from Adelaide and replace Such, who had bowled well there, with the raw talent and considerable pace of Tudor.
Tudor has been injury-prone in the past, but he had managed to stay fit until Christmas Day when he reported a niggle in his hip to the physiotherapist, Wayne Morton. Tudor had played left back in a game of football with which these cricketers chose to celebrate the birth of Christ, although that is not blamed for his indisposition. Indeed, before the toss, Tudor bowled twice in the nets and ran out with the fielders to their practice. He reported to the management that he thought he could bowl, but he could not be sure that he would last five days. "It's nothing serious," said Gooch, but he chose not to risk it, and it does make you wonder why Tudor didn't just grin and bear it - which is what Fraser would have done.
Fraser was one of the players considering the consequences of Tudor's doubts. "There was a lot going on this morning," he said. "Everyone looking at each other wondering whether they were going to play or not. Stewart said, `I'll tell you as soon as I can,' which was by 10.15am."
Stewart decided that Tudor's absence would make England's pusillanimous tail intolerably long, and, instead of giving John Crawley yet another last chance, decided to play Hegg, so that he could open and try to get the innings off to a decent start. Gooch knows it's a gamble, telling reporters: "If they put on 150, you'll say the decision was inspired. If it's 10, you'll say it was a shocking move. You can say that. We've got to make the decision."
For Fraser it was redemption. He hated being dropped in Perth, and said so. But he had begun to think that he would only get back as a result of someone else's misfortune, which proved to be the case. "It's been a difficult and frustrating time," he said. "It's taken me 15 years to become a good bowler, and I'm not going to become a bad one in three months, but you do get worried. A 33-year-old doesn't get as many chances as a 21-year-old."
Eight years ago Fraser was cruelly injured playing here. He showed character in overcoming that, and has now regained his England place no less than three times. He said that, while you could not be sure what had happened under the covers, the pitch will be a pretty decent one. For Fraser, the definition of decent means helpful to bowlers. That is why Mark Taylor chose to bowl first.
Last week when I talked to Taylor freely and at length in Sydney - the interview will appear next Sunday - he explained that his attitude to the toss is changing. "Before I put England in at Perth, I thought of a few matches where I'd um'd and ah'd and batted first. I tended to be a bat-first captain, but in Tests during my captaincy I reckon that in a lot of them I batted first because I thought I should, but by the end of the game I thought I should have bowled.
"People have this thing about batting first, but there's nothing better than getting a side out for 200, then batting beautifully for 400. We've done that a lot because everyone's too scared to put us in, and there's been bounce in the wicket and we've got McGrath, Fleming and Gillespie. People think if you win the toss, you win the game. I think the toss is blown out of all proportion."
After losing it - for the ninth time in the last 10 Ashes games - England will, on the contrary, see the toss as one more grave injustice. But attitudes to the toss define the difference between the teams.
Unlike Taylor's Australians, the English have lost their belief in themselves. It is sadder, even, than the weather.Reuse content