Boxing Day in Melbourne (part 1)

David Wiseman

December 26, 2002

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Twenty years ago one of the classic Test matches was played at the MCG. David Wiseman takes a look back in this four-part series which backgrounds the MCG, Boxing Day Tests, and the epic of 1982/83.

Take a piece of grass. Mark out a 22-yard strip, the old-fashioned English chain, in the middle of it. Place three sticks at both ends of this strip and you already have something. Erect some grandstands and electricity starts to generate.

That's all a cricket ground is and the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), the grandest cathedral in the cricket world, is no exception. What began in the early 19th century as 10 acres of swamp in Yarra Park became the MCG in March 1856.

Twenty-one years later, the MCG was host to cricket's first Test match. Australia met England in March 1877. For Australia, Charles Bannerman was the hero with the bat, making an unbeaten 165, and Tom Kendall the hero with the ball after taking seven for 55 to bowl Australia to victory by 45 runs. Bannerman's 165 was 67.35% of Australia's 245 - surely one of the oldest of all world records in sport which still stands today.

A great rivalry between England and Australia was formed, and the MCG came to host many other memorable cricket matches between the two sides.

On New Year's Day 1908, Australia met England at the MCG for the second Test, after Australia had won the first by two wickets in Sydney. A batting line-up stacked with immortal names such as Victor Trumper, Charles Macartney, Clem Hill, Monty Noble and Warwick Armstrong saw Australia bat first and make 269. England responded with 382, including 83 on debut from Jack Hobbs and 126 from Ken Hutchings. Australia was bowled out early on the fifth day for 397, a lead of 281.

At stumps on the fifth day, the match was precariously placed with England 4/159. In this era of timeless Tests, the game would be played until a result came.

When Armstrong had English wicket-keeper Joe Humphries trapped in front for 16, England required 39 to win with their No 11 and known bunny, Arthur Fielder, joining Syd Barnes at the crease. At the time, Barnes had a batting average of nine with a top score of 26 which he had made in his maiden Test innings.

The English pair had scraped and nudged their way to level the scores. With one run needed for victory, a mix-up saw both at the same end. Gerry Hazlitt's throw missed wicket-keeper Hanson Carter behind the stumps and the duo crossed for the winning single and the most unlikely of victories.

For Australia, this was their second one-wicket loss in an Ashes match - the first being in the fifth Test at the Oval in 1902.

Barnes was more accustomed to winning Test matches with the ball and not the bat, but striving to win an Ashes Test for his country brought out qualities in Barnes he never knew he had, just like it would bring out heroics in others down the track.

The MCG has often been the venue for such heroics: Wilfred Rhodes taking 15/124 in 1904, England successfully chasing 331 in 1928/29 and Bob Cowper's defiant 307 in 1965/66. And then, of course, there was the 1976/77 Centenary Test!

There was no consistency with the scheduling of Tests at the MCG. With four Test venues in Australia, sometimes Sydney and Melbourne would host more than one Test in a summer. The dates moved around.

In 1968, a tradition was born with Australia squaring off against the West Indies in the first Boxing Day Test match.

After dropping the first Test in Brisbane by 125 runs, Australia bounced back the only way it knew how. Sending the West Indians in, Graham 'Garth' McKenzie captured eight for 71 to roll the West Indies for an even 200.

After combining for a 217 run partnership in the First Test, Ian Chappell and skipper Bill Lawry put on 298 to bat the West Indies out of the game. Australia was bowled out for 510 late on the third day for a lead of 310, and Gleeson claimed his second five-wicket haul of the series to spin the hosts to an innings victory.

Despite the success of this event, the Boxing Day Test wasn't yet a permanent fixture. The next one was six years later in 1974. The split of World Series Cricket saw it put on the backburner for a number of years.

But in the post-WSC era, a remarkable Test between Australia and the West Indies was to enshrine the Boxing Day Test in the Australian sporting landscape...

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© 2002 David Wiseman

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