The Press put on a Christmas pantomime for the players here yesterday, which was very much a reciprocal gesture given that the players had previously spent most of this tour putting on a series of pantomimes for the Press.
However, when the curtain came up on the second Test match on Christmas Eve, the part of England (a tricky role, involving a good deal of knocking over props and fluffing lines) appeared to have been taken over by serious professional performers, and th
e re may yet be hope of the Ashes developing into a five-part drama rather than a three-act farce.
The panto revolved around a cricket team wandering around in the wilderness for 40 Tests, much to the disapproval of God. Needless to say, the part of God involved a familiarly bluff Yorkshire accent, and England's pleasure at having pricked Australia's bubble may have been marginally diluted by the knowledge that Raymond Illingworth (who probably thought that God was not a big enough part) may not have regarded it as entirely co-incidental with his arrival in Australia.
Poor old Keith Fletcher. Having spent most of this tour bravely consenting to end-of-play interviews largely revolving around whether he would be employing the word "pathetic" or "cwap" to describe his team's performance, on the one day he had the chanceto sound an unbeat note he had to share the stage with his England chairman.
On the rare occasions England had a day to celebrate under Illy's predecessor, Lord Ted made a point of slipping through the back door and leaving the plaudits to others. Raymond, however, is not quite so bashful on these occasions, and gallantly allowedhimself to bask in the reflected limelight.
The bookmakers were quoting England at 6-1 before the start, and clearly had so little fear for the safety of their money that these odds remained on offer even when Michael Atherton won the toss. It was a good one to win, on an MCG pitch that was surprisingly moist, and for once England were sharp enough to exploit it.
During a succession of embarrassing Ashes defeats since the 1989 home series, it is a sobering thought that while Australia have averaged 48 runs per wicket, England have managed 28. That represents a difference of 200 runs an innings, and whenever Australia have hit trouble, England have invariably managed to obligingly let them off the hook.
On Saturday, this again looked like being the case when the Waugh twins turned a precarious 100 for 4 into a semi-respectable 171 for 4, but just for once on this tour England made a poor piece of cricket work for them. Phillip DeFreitas' first ball of his third spell was a wide long hop, which Mark Waugh drilled straight to Graham Thorpe at cover point.
It was decent catch, and apart from a difficult chance dropped by Stephen Rhodes off Devon Malcolm, and further evidence that Graham Gooch's eyesight is not too clever these days when he failed to move fast enough at third man for Waugh's sliced uppercutoff Malcolm, England's fielding was for once closer to a razor blade than a tub of lard.
They were also heavily pysched up for a change, and when Darren Gough, whose hamstring tweak was considered worth the risk in preference to playing Angus Fraser, had Michael Bevan caught off the splice, Gough went through a series of celebrations that very nearly put him back on the physio's couch.
DeFreitas almost claimed a run-out with a direct hit referred for TV adjudication, and even Mike Gatting pulled off something resembling a reasonably tuned athlete. This was when Michael Slater set off for an impossible run to DeFreitas, and Gatting moved smartly from short leg to the stumps to collect DeFreitas' arrowed return.
Atherton's field placings were a kind of each-way bet, a mish-mash of aggression and wondering whether he had actually done the right thing by inserting the opposition. In that sense Slater's suicide was a welcome seasonal gift, and England were also indebted to the overseas umpire, Steve Bucknor, for the marginal lbw decision to despatch Mark Taylor.
Neither did Atherton exactly have the words "tally ho" on his lips when he invited Philip Tufnell to bowl over the wicket into the right-hander's rough with a 6-3 leg-side field, but Tufnell was accurate enough to persuade David Boon and Ian Healy to lose their wickets with frustrated shots.
Finally, when Gough had Shane Warne brilliantly caught by Graeme Hick off the day's penultimate delivery with the second new ball, England yesterday tucked into their Christmas lunch happily safe from any double entendres from an Australian waiter askingwhether they had enjoyed the stuffing.
At the fancy dress lunch itself, England for once had no need to come in disguise (i.e. as cricketers) and Illingworth, originally cast as Superman, came as Fu Manchu. To his credit, he declined to say that in his day left-arm spinners bowled a differentclass of chinamen.
Graham Gooch was Captain Hook ("without the hook nowadays, too old...") and Mike Gatting came as Henry VIII. "Not bad is it? I can have a rack of lamb in one hand, and a roast turkey in the other." All we need now is for someone to pull the wishbone.
the party line-up The England line-up in our back-page photograph is (left to right): Back row: Mike Gatting, John Crawley, Graham Thorpe, Devon Malcolm, Mike Atherton, Shaun Udal, Alec Stewart, Dave Roberts (physiotherapist), Craig White, Angus Fraser, Phillip DeFreitas, Keith Fletcher (team manager), Geoff Arnold (bowling coach), Ray Illingworth (chairman of selectors), Graeme Hick. Front row: M J K Smith (tour manager), Darren Gough, Joey Benjamin, Stephen Rhodes and Mark Ilott.
test scoreboard (First day; England won toss)
AUSTRALIA - First Innings M J Slater run out (DeFreitas/Gatting) 3
(26 mins, 19 balls )
*M A Taylor lbw b DeFreitas 9
(73 mins, 41 balls, 1 four )
D C Boon c Hick b Tufnell 41
(148 mins, 100 balls, 4 fours)
M E Waugh c Thorpe b DeFreitas 71
(220 mins, 155 balls, 3 fours)
M G Bevan c Atherton b Gough 3
(27 mins, 23 balls)
S R Waugh not out 61
(176 mins, 137 balls, 2 fours)
+I A Healy c Rhodes b Tufnell 17
(58 mins, 42 balls, 1 four)
S K Warne c Hick b Gough 6
(26 mins, 25 balls)
Extras (lb7, nb 2) 9
Total (for 7 , 383 mins, 89.5 overs) 220
Fall: 1-10 (Slater), 2-39 (Taylor), 3-91 (Boon), 4-100 (Bevan), 5-171 (M Waugh), 6-208 (Healy), 7-220 (Warne).
To bat: C J McDermott, D W Fleming, T B A May.
Bowling: Malcolm 21-4-53-0 (nb1) (6-3-14-0 7-1-18-0 3-0-8-0 3-0-10-0 2-0-3-0); DeFreitas 19-3-53-2 (nb1) (9-2-16-1 4-0-13-0 2-0-13-0 4-1-11-1); Gough 19.5-8-39-2 (5-3-15-0 7-3-8-1 6-2-14-0 1.5-0-2-1); Tufnell 28-7-59-2 (nb1) (4-1-5-0 11-4-31-1 13-2-23-1
; Hick 2-0-9-0 (one spell).
Progress: 50: in 101 mins, 21.5 overs. Lunch: 64-2 (Boon 34, M Waugh 12) 27 overs. 100: 203 mins, 46.4 overs. Tea: 132-4 (M Waugh 51, S Waugh 19) 56 overs. 150: 261 mins, 60 overs. 200: 343 mins, 80.1 overs. New ball: 86 overs, 215-6.
M Waugh's 50: 167 mins, 116 balls, 2 fours.
S Waugh's 50: 128 mins, 102 balls, 2 fours.
England: *M A Atherton (capt), G A Gooch, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, M W Gatting, A J Stewart, +S J Rhodes, P A J DeFreitas, D Gough, P C R Tufnell, D E Malcolm.
Umpires: S A Bucknor and S G Randell.
TV replay umpire: W P Sheahan.
Match referee: J R Reid.