It’s a wonderful game, cricket. Especially in the context of great traditions such as the Boxing Day test match at the MCG. It is a fixture that has become a seasonal comfort. As reliable as It’s A Wonderful Life appearing on TV every Christmas eve. George Bailey, Australia’s number six and namesake of James Stewart’s protagonist in the festive favourite, is running on a little faith over this silly summer season Down Under.
Test matches can be shaped by the slightest actions of any one player. Australia are leading the Ashes 3-0. What has characterised this entirely unforeseen turnaround against England is that everyone has made a meaningful contribution at some point, large or small, bar George Bailey. Having waltzed into the team on the back of a blistering ODI series against India, alongside a revived and mercurial Mitchell Johnson, Bailey has been conspicuous in his absence.
It is a testament to Australia’s change in fortunes that their number six has been carried, albeit with little drag. Bailey has not had a howling time of it but has failed to deliver on the promise ascribed to him by John Inverarity, Australia’s chairman of selectors. For the first time in nine years Australia named an unchanged side for the fourth test match in a row. This is what winning does to a team. It restores faith in a group and justifies a consistent selection policy, which in turn provides the strongest conditions for a team to succeed. This is why Joe Root had few question marks next to his name after the first of the back-to-back Ashes series in England last summer. Aside from his century at Lord’s which was strewn with good luck he had a poor series. But England are stubborn and recognise that young talent is worth persisting with, especially given they’d just won the series 3-0. Success, like wealth, seems to be self-perpetuating.
Now Australia’s fortunes have changed. On the second day at the MCG England reminded the local batsmen of their susceptibility to skilful seam bowling where conditions are a little more favourable. Australia collapsed in their first innings for a fourth time in a row, reeling at 164-9 by the close of play on day two after Anderson and Broad each took three wickets. Brad Haddin remained at the crease unbeaten on 43 to potentially scupper England. Thanks to a partnership of 40 with Nathan Lyon for the tenth wicket on the third morning it was another great escape for Australia all over again. Haddin’s namesake would have no doubt been Steve McQueen all series. His timely contributions have made all the difference. The muggy atmosphere, shades of green on the pitch and its lack of pace all seemed to make England feel more at home in the field. Conversely, Australia’s batsmen became bogged down just as England’s had done. Unlike at the WACA or Brisbane this pitch does not lend itself to enterprising stroke play. It is more suited to the stubborn grind of Chris Rodgers’ 222 minute vigil for his 61 runs.
This is where we come to George Bailey. While most of the top order failed on this occasion, they have all made meaningful contributions in the series thus far. Bailey’s 19 ball duck, alongside a series of low scores, is bound to test Inverarity’s policy of consistency sooner rather than later. Bailey’s failures are not simply a depressive and inaccurate self-reflection like those of his namesake in It’s A Wonderful Life, the enriching tale of Christmas guardian angels and community spirit. His are real. It is difficult not feel as if Bailey’s inclusion has made little difference. It has been said that his team mates value his maturity and positivity. We have also had glimpses of his stroke making ability. But he needs to start making a real difference for Australia when it really counts. When he arrived at the crease with the score on 4-110 Australia were in trouble. That was his chance, with the series already won, to prove his worth. Unfortunately he was undone by Anderson after failing to get moving, numerically or even seemingly physically.
It is understandable, the unwillingness of Australia’s selection panel to tamper with a winning formula considering how long it has been since they had one. But Bailey will know there is only so long John Inverarity will keep playing Clarence Odbody in this Christmas themed saga (Odbody was the guardian angel who prevented George Bailey’s suicide in the Hollywood classic) and repaying failure with faith. The second innings chase of 231 to win will be the make or break moment of this game for Australia and quite possibly George Bailey, the real one that is.