Cricket's secular feast day
Matthew Engel argues that the most enduringly successful Test matches are those fixed in a time and place. In a period of chaotic upheaval in world cricket - call it the Big Bash Bang - that dependability becomes more important than ever to the classical game's viability. In Melbourne, the tradition of the Boxing Day Test, though not old, has the stature and gravitas of a feast day.
Like any day of religious observance it has its own rites, texts and traditions - even vestments. The obligations, celebrations and repasts of Christmas Day have finished at last. The new day dawns, with its new temper. Each interprets it in his or her own way. The order of service is flexible. There is ceremony, but it is not much stood upon.
It begins invariably with the morning procession. For some that means a suit - probably pinching at the stomach - a breakfast, a guest speaker and a reprise of old lies, no less cherished for their yearly retelling, by the heroes of Boxing Days past. Boxing Day is a celebration of cricket, but also of cricketers.
For some it means the Long Room. In the old MCG it was a place of patrician portraits, leathery chairs, musky scents, loud, even raucous chatter, obscured views, and from early in the day, the sickly smell of spilled beer and sticky carpet. In the new MCG it is the same, but roomier.
In the old Long Room it was said that the first day of the Boxing Day Test was for being at the cricket, the other days for watching it. In the new Long Room, the same applies.
For some, Boxing Day is a boisterous bar, a group of mates, and in the corners a couple of television screens, dumbly updating the day's play. In the old MCG the bars were called Mezzanine and Bullring. In the new MCG the lines are cleaner and the names more august - Percy Beames, Frank Grey Smith - but the atmosphere is as ripe as ever.
One long-ago Boxing Day, Australian coach Bob Simpson, in team tracksuit, chanced a look into one of those bars while on an errand, and spotted the then-uncapped Shane Warne, pie in one hand, beer in the other, whiling away the day with his friend Dean Waugh, the younger brother of Steve and Mark. Simpson's stare could not have been more reproving, but history would not be denied. The next week in Sydney, Warne made his debut. The next Boxing Day Test, he was the star.
For some, Boxing Day is a morning at the pub, then the outer. Once, it was distinctly different from the members': more exposed to the elements, more heathen. There were no seats but long wooden benches; both they and the people on them tended to peel in the sun. There were fewer police, no closed-circuit television and the so-called ''limit'' was 24 full-strength cans per person.
There were famous days and infamous. In 1986, denizens rained bananas down on England medium-pacer Gladstone Small, accompanied by monkey noises. Shameful to report, no authority intervened. This day still, some come to drink themselves into a stupor, to strip almost to the point of indecency, to flirt with eviction, to taunt others as they are evicted, to generate Mexican waves, to make long chains out of plastic beer cups - in short, not simply to have fun but to inflict it. It is as well the beer now is strictly light.
Mostly, though, these are mellower times. The outer on Boxing Day is crowded, certainly, but not as on grand final day. Folk come in parties, knots of mates or families, still together from Christmas Day. Some stay all day, some to lunch, some until the sun has done its damnedest.
Typically, one has a book. She does not know or particularly like cricket, but loves the cheerful and convivial, and yes, even humorous, atmosphere. For her this is a place of repose and meditation. For her the Boxing Day at the cricket is a hardy annual, cricket its most incidental and least important aspect.
For some, an indeterminate number, Boxing Day is about the cricket. It is not about that day especially, but that day as the first of five or thereabouts. There is the toss, and the moment of pregnant suspense just before the first ball is bowled. Dependably, it is short of length outside the off stump, and the batsman lets it go, and then scuffs his guard again, and the fieldsmen squawk like the seagulls still grazing on the outfield, and off we go again.
For some the cricket is the same every year, and that is why they are here. For some it is subtly and infinitely different every time, and that is why they are here. Because it is a Test match, there will be no result at the end of the day, but rather a position and a set of possibilities to contemplate. Hopefully the prospect will be delicious. Sometimes, like last year, it will be bleak and interminable. Whatever it is, fewer than half will be back; other duties and pleasures call.
In that sense, Boxing Day is like Melbourne's other secular feast days, Melbourne Cup day and AFL grand final day; it is for the once-a-year fan, the partygoer, the enthusiast of convenience, the spectator who comes not to see but to be seen. But the same can be said of the churches on Christmas Day, too. The one certainty is that they will come for their anointing.
The scale of Boxing Day mostly is independent of Australia's fortunes. In the good times the crowd will be huge, in the dog days still very big. For 15 years it has acted as a stage upon which indomitable Australia and its fans - who also supposed themselves indomitable - could exchange end-of-year salutes, their majesties reciprocating felicitations. Now soberer times have arrived. All that can be said with confidence this year is that the Boxing Day Test still is on. Fortunately it will be enough.
Greg Baum is a sportswriter at the Melbourne Age