August 9, 2011

Cricket's secular feast day

Greg Baum
Boxing Day at the MCG is one of cricket's grand traditions. For some it's about being at the cricket, for some the Long Room, for some drinking themselves silly, for others a time with family

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 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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 11, 2011, 15:30 GMT

    The Boxing Day test has transformed itself to more than just a test match featuring Australia. It is now a universally iconic test cricket celebration. I have been lucky to witness so many wonderful heroics. Virender Sehwag's buccaneering 195 in 2003. Yousuf Youhana's gutsy 111 a year later. Matthew Hayden who scored five Boxing Day hundreds in six years. However, my favourite Boxing Day memory is the stupendous death defying century made by Kim Hughes in 1981 against the blinding speed of the West Indies pace quartet at their zenith. Hughes made 100* out of a paltry 198 all out. Then an inspired Dennis Lillee ripped through the West Indies top order bowling the great Viv Richards off the last ball of the day to reduce the Windies to 4 for 11. The euphoria of the crowd as the jubilant Australian players charged off the ground was the most spine tingling moment I have felt at the cricket. I may have only been a kid, but I knew it was Boxing Day and I knew I had just witnessed history.

  • Ajay on August 9, 2011, 23:36 GMT

    MCG is a Colosseum where Cricket Gladiators come out and battle, their nerves are high on the Boxing day morning and there is no better feeling than to watch it LIVE with 90,000 other lucky spectators. I was lucky enough to watch Shane Warne's 700th test wicket (A Strauss) in 2006, and that stays as the best Cricketing memory of my life...

    I live in Melbourne and one of main reasons of me moving to Australia was because I was captivated by this ground.. I look at it every morning from the train in to work and its a TEMPLE that gives me inspiration.. Its in a Class of its own.. :)

  • Peter on August 9, 2011, 23:07 GMT

    I prefer watching the boxing day test with full strength beer from the comfort of my couch. The Sydney test is where it's at.

  • wayne on August 9, 2011, 22:53 GMT

    I've been to the MCG for football, but never cricket. We had tickets for the 2003 Boxing Day Test (it was a corker for the first two days, from what I saw on the telly - rampaging Sehwag & Ponting!), however work commitments scuttled that, much to my disgust! Still high on my to-do list, perhaps for the next Ashes series (glad I missed this one!).

  • Dummy4 on August 9, 2011, 22:48 GMT

    Cricket is a sideshow at the MCG. The real drawcard and the real money is with Australian Rules football and that won't change.

  • Kesari on August 9, 2011, 15:03 GMT

    Hi.. I am an Indian.. I have never been to MCG.. But i just love the aura that the boxing day test at the MCG brings alongwith it.. A Carnival, A Feast and what not... Come December 26th 2011 it is going to be INDIA v/s AUSTRALIA at the MCG... Cant get any bigger... Can it?? Cant wait... :)

  • Dummy4 on August 9, 2011, 13:35 GMT

    lucky 2 ave been there in 2007 to see Anil Kumble get a five for..thanks in the main to Dinesh Karthik and Venkatesh prasad from whom i could wangle Players pass!Lucky me..toured arnd the famous historic venue from Richmond Station...was like a cricket Pilgrim..soaking up the sights ,famous Donal G.Bradman,Dennis K Lillee statues and got 2 c the Bay 13 and heard them too!gr8 venue at a great City!

  • Dummy4 on August 9, 2011, 10:17 GMT

    Nice article Greg, the first Boxing Day test I remember was in 1974, when my father and I were still queued outside the gates before Dennis Amiss was dismissed. Before that I recall going to the MCG on boxing day to witness a Victoria vs NSW Sheffield Shield match. So in my memory the Boxing Day test has been in existence for 35 years in Australia. I might be wrong but perhaps the Pakistani's and the World XII may have played at that time too in the previous seasons.

  • Dummy4 on August 9, 2011, 7:06 GMT

    MCG, the venue has it all. My biggest desire as a Cricket lover is to be there at the Boxing Day, though have been to ODI n T20 and visited the stadium on Non Match days as well. A true treat for any sports lover.

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