December 30, 2013

The pull of sport during Christmas

Nothing makes a family get-together over the holidays more bearable than Test cricket on the telly

Jacques Kallis: a Christmas constant © Associated Press

Christmas is, fundamentally, a nostalgic festival. We essentially celebrate a Dickensian ideal, with a plump roast bird, a handful of tangerines and a few moments of benevolence somehow redeeming the year that has gone before. We want snow, we want trees, we want goodwill; and even if we don't really want Uncle Bill, we accept we probably ought to have him round because he is family and it is Christmas after all.

We drink sherry and eat sprouts even though we'd never dream of doing it at any other time in the year, and we watch nonsense on television that would normally bring us out in hives. And we do it all largely because we did it last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and because our parents have been doing it for years and their grandparents for years before them. But one thing - I speak as somebody British who has only ever celebrated three of my 37 Christmases outside of Britain - has happened in recent years that has made the experience of Christmas infinitely better: and that is the coming of satellite television and the broadcast of overseas Test matches.

As Christmas Day begins to drag and you wonder if the relatives are ever going to leave, as you wonder whether a third glass of port will make things bearable or just give you an even worse hangover the next day, as you wonder if you can get away with watching another episode of Pointless (your mum weirdly having recorded most of the series - not that you're complaining), there is one thing that keeps you going, one star of wonder to follow through the wilderness: the knowledge that at 10.30 you can, with full justification, turn on the telly and watch the cricket. Suddenly Ian Ward becomes a great sage, a man whose words must be heard, and because others have a vague notion you're a sports journalist and because cricket seems like the sort of thing people should be respectful of, everybody shuts up. Mark Nicholas' interview at the toss commands greater silence than the Queen did at 3pm, his enthusiasm cowing any attempt at sarcasm.

And before long, everybody's drifted off and you're left either alone or with the one other person in the house who likes cricket, and once that's happened it's not really like Christmas anymore: you're just sitting half-drunk watching sport, which is exactly how you'd want to spend Christmas if you were given a free choice. In fact, it's how you spend your birthday most years if you get the chance, except inside and with extra marzipan.

But actually the real joy isn't whatever's going on in Melbourne overnight; it's whatever's going on in South Africa the next day. Outside the wind may be whistling through the telephone wires, scattering squally showers against the window and making the tradition of popping down to the seafront to watch people throwing themselves into a turbulent North Sea for charity even less attractive than usual, but inside - at least most of the time; the Boxing Day Durban rain this year was deeply irritating - it's bright and sunny, Graeme Smith is shovelling the ball into the leg side and South African cameramen are perving over women in bikinis with a genuinely spectacular lack of self-consciousness. Obviously it was better when Jacques Rudolph was involved, offering unmissable Christmas pun opportunities, but you can't have everything.

Next year, though, it's not going to be quite the same when West Indies tour South Africa. It was with a certain horror this year that I realised that Jacques Kallis has become a part of the Christmas tradition, whether he's hauling himself to another half-century or meandering bovinely back to the start of his run.

Even if Sunderland are at home on Boxing Day, the cricket gives you something to gawp at before dragging yourself off to the pub, a gentle analgesic to ease you through the pain of the previous day's over-consumption. I'm sure for the players, umpires, journalists and stadium employees, it's all very annoying (football journalists get away lightly here; even if I am working on Boxing Day, I can be finished and in the pub by half-six), but as a consumer I don't care, just as I give short shrift to complaints about the way football matches are packed in around Christmas.

This is when sport comes closest to its amateur ideals, when it echoes a distant past of unruly local contests on holidays. But more than that it's when almost nobody has anything better to do, when friends and family gather round and acknowledge their kinship by pulling crackers, complaining about how thick the custard ought to be and rehearsing the same old arguments about whether Kallis really should be bowling that much given the state of his back.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here