David Warner had the latter of two laughs and the last in a series. Relishing the Boxing Day Ashes stage, he had muscled his way to 99 when he mistimed a push at debutant English seamer Tom Curran and popped an easy catch to mid-on. It was paradise won and lost, and batsmen and bowler both howled.
But a replay quickly revealed that this was a no-ball, whereupon batsmen and bowler were turned inside out emotionally, and their teams and the crowd with them, and intemperate words flew. The next ball delivered Warner to his hundred, but Curran went to stumps four hours later still to take the maiden Test wicket his toils this day probably merited. In Test cricket, there are many fine lines, but no middle ground.
This was at the mid-point of the day, also its fulcrum. The middle session resembled a velodrome sprint in which two cyclists ride themselves to a wobbly standstill. The English bowlers concentrated their attack wide of off stump, with fields to match, and the Australian batsmen foreswore to chase them out in that uncontrolled and unsafe space. Stuart Broad bowled one over of near wides to Warner, prompting hoots from the crowd, but not a twitch from the batsman. So with horns locked thus, a meagre 43 runs accrued in two hours, for the fall of two wickets.
The entertainment in this for another vast crowd, more than 88,000, was a matter of personal and perhaps generational proclivity. It was a bit like the bikes. If you looked only at the fact that the contest was barely moving, it was dull fare. If you looked at the interaction of forces, seen and unseen, that made it appear so, it was full fare, albeit from a nouvelle cuisine menu.
England were out to recover at least self-respect. Having lost the toss and been sentenced to field, they were unlikely to win the match this day, but they could have let it skid away disastrously. Australia were out to turn three good wins into a habit. Between them was an MCG pitch that suited neither, lacking the pace that Test quality batsmen and bowlers both prefer, the bowlers for obvious reasons, the batsmen because it feeds into timing. This pitch was not so much middle ground as no-man's land.
Tactically, England won the period of stasis. Cam Bancroft and Usman Khawaja both fell after long, laboured innings, and between them Warner also was lost in the doldrums, adding merely three to his hundred in seven more overs, then edging Jimmy Anderson to the wicketkeeper. Three Australian wickets had been extracted for 38. Shaun Marsh survived a first-ball referral for lbw that if upheld might put this day in a different hue. Here was another fine line, this one truly imaginary: the ball was projected to be hitting the stumps, but the umpire's decision stood.
But thanks to Warner's genius in contriving runs, and Steve Smith's to make them at will, and on a plane somewhere above mere Test cricket, and thanks also to Marsh's ability to foil, Australia began and ended the day with long partnerships that gave them the narrow ascendancy.
England maintained its discipline in bowling to a plan that left no margin for error, and newcomer Curran demonstrated a clever slower ball that on this slow pitch almost died upon pitching. Contrary to reports, England have never become a rabble on this tour. Anderson excepted, its newest blood has been its reddest. But, locked into a defensive plan, England possibly missed initiatives for the taking, for instance, to go with the moment and give Curran a speculative early bowl, or to take the new ball when fell due late this day. England will say they are playing within their limitations, others that they are creating them.
Stuart Broad's appeal is denied as he takes on Shaun Marsh. Photo: AAP
So how, as a hotel or shop might ask, how did Boxing Day measure up? Here's one form of feedback. The first Mexican wave of the day swelled soon after lunch, betraying impatience and unrest. But there was not another for the day. Nor, though, was there anything like a full house at stumps.
Whether the rest had gone for now or for good is Cricket Australia's question to ponder.