“I can’t wait for Christmas, because the day after Christmas is Boxing Day. You’ll know to find me … ten rows back at the MCG”: Paul Kelly, Behind the Bowler’s Arm.
The Boxing Day Test is a Christmas tradition, though a younger one than you might think.
At the Ashes Test last year with my dad, he reminisced about the Centenary Test of 1977. As Rick McKosker courageously batted with a broken jaw in the second innings, my grandfather drank tins of VB while dad enjoyed a coke and a pre-packed sandwich.
But that sandwich was devoid of leftover Christmas turkey, because the Centenary Test was actually played in March.
Paul Kelly, born in 1955, couldn’t have attended a Test match at the MCG beginning on Boxing Day until 1968, when he was 13. That match, against the West Indies, was the 56th Test at the ground, but only the third to include play on Boxing Day. A traditional Sheffield Shield match between Victoria and New South Wales had previously held sway, though the first formal Boxing Day match at the MCG predates both Shield and Test cricket.
In 1866, Tom Wills, the forefather of Aussie rules, captained an Aboriginal XI that lost to the Melbourne Cricket Club in front of a crowd estimated to have been between 8,000 and 11,000 people.
The modern Boxing Day tradition only bedded down in 1980, making it the youngest of Melbourne’s four sporting pillars – the AFL/VFL Grand Final began in 1898; the Melbourne Cup in 1861; and the Australian Open in 1905.
While the Boxing Day fixturing seems to fit with the flavour of the World Series Cricket era, the decision was made for the attendee, rather than the TV. Only the final session of the Test would’ve been broadcast live into Melbourne in the 1980s, so as to not compromise the gate takings, and it therefore seems unlikely that media mogul Kerry Packer had anything to do with the move.
Packer passed away on Boxing Day in 2005 – the day I first attended the Melbourne Test. In 2006, I returned like a pilgrim for the Ashes. The messiah was Shane Warne, who started the day on 699 Test wickets.
From the front of the Great Southern Stand, I watched Warne toy with the crowd all morning, rolling his arm over in the slips and giving his hat to the umpire well before it was his turn to bowl.
Eventually, bowl he did – Andrew Strauss, through the gate.
The ball striking the stumps sound like the rush of a match being lit. Someone must’ve promptly doused the match in oil, because the roar that followed was as explosive as any I can remember.
Warne continued on his merry way, befuddling English wicketkeeper Chris Read on his way to first innings figures of 5 for 39.
If an in-form batsman sees it like a beach ball, Read was seeing it like a raisin.
While my dad’s formative Test match memories weren’t made in December, mine certainly were. The second Boxing Day Test in 1974 was brought on by the addition of the Perth Test to the cricketing calendar. I doubt any West Australians will work that historical peculiarity into their push for a Yuletide Test at the new Perth Stadium. Crowd numbers will do them no favours – 81,104 bums on seats across the entire five days of the second Test hardly mount a compelling case.
The only thing that could possibly steal Christmas and the Test from Melbourne is the poor quality of the MCG pitch. Perth’s was positively spicy, yet still received the lowest possible pass mark from the match referee.
Melbourne’s last year resembled a stodgy Christmas pudding, baked in haste and brought to the shenanigans as an afterthought.
Although the MCC’s deal with Cricket Australia expires at the end of this summer, the governing body has flagged that no change to the festive schedule is imminent. Be that as it may, last year’s Test would have been a total write-off but for the unbeaten 244 of the soon-to-be knighted Alastair Cook, who lived up to the honour about to be bestowed upon him by saving the match.
That pitch was ranked “poor” by the match referee. Changes brought in by the ICC for 2018 mean that international grounds that produce sub-standard pitches will incur two demerit points if deemed “below average” (by the match referee), three points if deemed “poor”, and five points if deemed “unfit”. Any venue that accumulates five demerit points within a rolling five-year period will be banned from hosting international matches for 12 months. New MCG curator Matt Page could scarcely be under more pressure.
Under his watch this season, only one of three Sheffield Shield games at the MCG has provided a result. India head to the MCG faced with their best chance of winning a series on these shores since 1985/86, when they drew all three Tests and inexplicably missed the chance to win in Melbourne by going the full Geoffrey Boycott on the last day.
The people are engrossed in the long game once more. They will turn up in droves on Boxing Day to see a new cast of players who are just as capable of creating memorable moments as Warne and McKosker.
There’s Virat Kohli and his talking bat, Tim Paine and his graceful gloves, and the guile of Nathan Lyon. All Kohli and co need is a pitch that allows them to put on a show.
To quote Paul Kelly again, many a cricket lover will be “ten rows back, with sunburnt knees” on Boxing Day.
Here’s hoping that Santa delivers them more than a stodgy Christmas pudding for their troubles.