All to play for at the MCG

Posted in England in Australia 2010-11

Darren Gough & Mark Butcher

Darren Gough, left, and Mark Butcher enjoy England's last Test win at the MCG in 1998

At last, an Ashes Boxing Day Test with something significant at stake.

Before anyone asks, I would have preferred an England victory at Perth and the urn secure with two Tests to play.

However, before the start of the series if you had offered me 1-1 after three Tests - meaning another victory for the tourists would retain the Ashes - I would have taken that.

England themselves, quite rightly, are intent on an outright series victory as team director Andy Flower reiterated last week.

Whatever you would or wouldn’t settle for at this stage, the remaining Tests at Melbourne and Sydney have effectively become a mini-series that the tourists can afford to draw but would rather win.

The action is set to resume at the MCG on Boxing Day, or in the last half hour of Christmas Day in the UK.

What a far cry from the previous two Ashes series Down Under when England were playing for pride by the fourth Test.

You have to go back to 1998-99 for when an Australia-England Test series was alive in Melbourne and four years earlier for when the Ashes were still at stake.

The significant footnote to the latter is it was only the second Test of five, starting on Christmas Eve with December 25 a rest day.

Alec Stewart & Damien Fleming

Alec Stewart's Boxing Day century at Melbourne in 1998 was perfect news to wake to after early wickets

As a 28-year-old, I can’t remember the last time England played an entirely meaningful Test at the MCG.

My earliest recollection of the fixture is listening to Test Match Special’s coverage of Mike Atherton and Mark Butcher falling to Glenn McGrath for ducks during the first three overs in 1998.

Having fallen asleep (it was already way past my bed time, even in the school holidays) I woke fearing worse had followed.

Much to my relief, a maiden Ashes century from captain Alec Stewart - my boyhood hero - had dug the tourists out of trouble.

However, Steve Waugh’s typically stubborn hundred gave Australia a useful first-innings lead and, when Atherton bagged a pair, the writing appeared to be on the wall.

England could only set their hosts 175 to win - boosted by number 11 Alan Mullally’s unlikely 16 - and, at 130 for three late on day four, Mark Taylor’s side seemed certain to wrap up the series.

This is what I woke up to, now staying with my aunt and uncle whom, unlike my immediate family, had Sky Sports. Happy days, so you would think, but my parents were sleeping on a sofa bed in the TV room and I didn’t dare wake them.

Having to settle for TMS, I listened excitedly as Mark Ramprakash took a stunning catch at square-leg off Mullally to dismiss Justin Langer and Dean Headley followed up with five quick wickets, including three with the total on 140. Suddenly England had hope, but first-innings centurion Waugh remained.

Glenn McGrath & Alan Mullally

Tailender Alan Mullally taunts Glenn McGrath en route to 16 in England's second innings. The tourists won by 12 runs

With Australia needing 15 with two wickets left, Darren Gough - England’s man of the series, who was to take a hat-trick in Sydney - finished off the tail to spark wild celebrations at the MCG and in my aunt and uncle’s dining room.

The victory is rightly remembered for Headley and Gough’s bowling heroics in the Melbourne gloom, but don’t forget the contribution of Mullally with the bat. The right-hander’s cameo, including three impudent fours, proved to be the difference between victory and defeat.

Unfortunately for England supporters, the next two Ashes Boxing Day Tests were not such close affairs, although Michael Vaughan’s second-innings ton gave Australia a scare in 2002, and the tourists ended each 4-0 down in the series.

Call me a fair weather fan if you will, but I hadn’t the heart to stay awake for much of either game even though my family at long last had invested in Sky by 2006.

Two years ago I was lucky enough to be at the Boxing Day Test, when Australia suffered a first home Test series defeat for 16 years - at the hands of South Africa, as part of a visit to my sister.

If only she could be midway through her year studying Down Under now.