Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The First Boxing Day Test

December 26; as Australia lazily celebrates a post Christmas public holiday, in Melbourne all roads lead to the MCG for the Boxing Day Test. As local sportswriter Greg Baum put it in 2012:

'It is said that Boxing Day is for going to the cricket, and the subsequent days of the Melbourne test for watching it.'

Large numbers of cricket fans, families and tourists turn up every year, regardless of the opposition (in the game Baum described above, some 67 000 turned out to watch Australia take on an undermanned Sri Lankan side) and the match has a celebratory, carnival atmosphere. The Boxing Day Test has become part of the scenery of the Christmas season and is now entrenched as one of Melbourne's most popular local traditions.

Another large crowd turned out for Boxing Day 2012 (ph: Getty)

So it's interesting to note that staging a test match on December 26 is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Previously, from a cricket perspective, Boxing Day in Melbourne was reserved for a state fixture, with Victoria traditionally hosting New South Wales (much to the chagrin of the NSW players, who were stuck with spending Christmas away from home). Even with international teams touring each summer, such was the rivalry between Australia's most populous states that this game was one of the biggest of the season, and crowds of more than 20 000 a day were not unusual.

But in the 1950's, Australia's cricket administrators decided to try something different.

The first test in Melbourne to feature play on Boxing Day was the second of the 1950-51 Ashes series. Starting on the 22nd and, with rest days on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the third day's play fell on the 26th. A bumper crowd of more than 60 000 turned out to watch Australia, batting on a green pitch, struggle to 181 and then England, chasing a modest 179 for victory, lose two cheap wickets before the end of the day (Australia pinched a narrow victory by 28 runs the following day).

Australia's Neil Harvey is run out on Boxing Day, 1950.

The trial was continued two seasons later when the second test of the 1952-53 series against South Africa also featured play on Boxing Day. The tourists had a team short of big names and only a small crowd, 24 000, was on hand to watch South African number three Russell Endean make a workmanlike century. Although the visitors may have been underwhelming on paper, they caused a major upset on the last day when off spinner Hugh 'Toey' Tayfield bowled them to victory.

After this, the Boxing Day test concept went back on the shelf. It would be 16 seasons before it would be revived.

The West Indian team that came to Australia for the 1968-69 season was a side in transition. A generation of great players - Wes Hall among them - had recently retired, leaving a crop of largely untried youngsters heavily reliant on champion all rounder and captain Gary Sobers. Sobers arrived in Australia worn out from 18 months of near continuous cricket and carrying a shoulder injury, the task he faced in trying to beat a talented and settled Australian line up appearing almost insurmountable.

Nevertheless, the unfancied tourists caught Australia out in the first test in Brisbane, Sobers himself exploiting a last day wicket and bowling his team to an upset victory. All eyes then turned to the second test in Melbourne.

The first test match in Melbourne to start on Boxing Day did not begin auspiciously. The 26th was a grey, cold, windy day, compared by Wisden to 'an English day in May,' and the weather undoubtedly contributed to the low turnout, with only 18 000 spectators braving the conditions.

Despite winning the first test, the West Indies made several changes and brought in three players for their test debut. The home side, for its part, made two changes, with Eric Freeman replacing Ashley Mallet and John Inverarity (later Australia's chairman of selectors) making way for Doug Walters, who had sat out the first game with injury. Australian captain Bill Lawry won the toss and sent the opposition in on a green, damp pitch.

The conditions were tailor made for Australian medium pacer Graham McKenzie, who took two wickets with the new ball and proved a handful all day. Only opener Roy Fredericks, one of the players making his debut, was able to bat with any certainty. Fredericks would finish a rain shortedned first day on 76 not out , dominating the West Indies score of 6/176. Sobers made a scratchy 19 before being bowled by a McKenzie inswinger.

Watching the 1968 Boxing Day from the outer.

McKenzie's form would continue on the second day, as he claimed a career best 8/71 while the West Indies were routed for 200. In reply, Australia lost an early wicket before Bill Lawry and Ian Chappell, captain and vice captain, combined for a mammoth stand of 298; Lawry batting efficiently while his younger partner (again in the words of Wisden), 'used his fast footwork to dictate to all the bowlers alike and demoralise the bowling.' The speed of the partnership, just over 300 minutes, made light of the conditions and demonstrated the thinness of the West Indian pace attack. Chappell was eventually bowled by Sobers for 165, while Lawry continued on to 205, his highest test score.

Bill Lawry on his way to 205 in Melbourne, 1968.

Chappell's hundred was the 1000th scored in test matches. Responding to Australia's tally of 510, the West Indian second innings subsided for 280, McKenzie completing a ten wicket match hall in the process.

The Boxing Day test concept went back into hiatus after this and did not come back till 1974, when the first day of the fourth Ashes test was played on this date.

Aerial view of the ground on Boxing Day 1974, Lillee and Thomson about to run amuck.

From 1980, the idea began to catch on, with most Melbourne test matches from that year onward starting the day after Christmas.

The last time a Melbourne Test did not feature play on Boxing Day was 1989, when Australia played Pakistan on the unnatural seeming dates of 12 - 16 January. A one day match was played on Boxing Day that year.

And the last test that did not start on Boxing Day was in 1994, when the Ashes test of that season started on Christmas Eve. But every year since has featured a Test match starting on December 26th, the date now permanently etched into the local sporting calendar.

Full house on Boxing Day.

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