However incompatible they superficially appear, the link between English cricket and Christmas has blossomed since the moment their first travelling team docked in Melbourne on 24 December 1861. But the visitors’ yuletide experience has changed considerably from the days when WG Grace visited in 1873 and spent Christmas Day hunting, unsuccessfully, for kangaroo before enjoying “a good, long, late night”. Or the apparently less enjoyable trip 24 years later when Ted Wainwright, the Yorkshire all-rounder, mournfully informed his teammates over lunch: “I wish I was back in the little cottage turning the meat.”
On the Bodyline tour of 1932-33, Douglas Jardine spent the big day fishing in Tasmania, a turn of events the local tourist board considered so exciting they issued a commemorative postcard. In 1936 the tourists, already away from home for more than three months, celebrated with particular gusto – although “some confessed they would rather be among the snow and sleet of England” than at the team’s Christmas dinner in a private room at Usher’s hotel in Sydney, where “all formality was dropped, and there was much good-natured banter and singing” – being as they were 2-0 up in a five-Test series. They lost the next three.
The Boxing Day Test has become, in the words of Mark Butcher, “a major part of cricketing folklore”, but it was a surprisingly recent addition to the calendar. England and Australia first met on that date in 1950, when the second Test resumed on 26 December after two days off. The following year, West Indies played Test cricket on Christmas Day itself, which one tourist declared “sacrilegious” and was not much more popular with the home side. “I have never played on Christmas Day before in my life and don’t like having to do so now,” an unnamed Australian said.
The first Test to start on Boxing Day followed 18 years later, and the first time England had a go was 1974. Since 1980 only four Australian summers have been without one – 1984, 1988 and 1994 – when Tests started before Christmas and resumed afterwards, and the fallow year of 1989, when Australia played an ODI against Sri Lanka instead.
Between 1980 and 1985 there were four draws in six years and in this period the MCG was heavily criticised for everything from the quality of pitches to their toilet facilities. Thankfully, as the Guardian reported in 1981, “the Melbourne public are said to be willing to watch anything”, and in 1982 the nascent tradition was boosted by “one of the most consistently thrilling Tests of all time”.
It was the first to feature four innings that all ended within 10 runs of each other, was on a knife-edge from the start and never left, and remains the joint third closest in history. It ended with Australia needing 292 to win but after Norman Cowans, playing his third Test and having taken a total of one wicket in his first two, had snaffled his sixth of the second innings to dismiss Rodney Hogg they were 74 away as their last batter, Jeff Thomson, came out to join Allan Border.
“The rest of the blokes in our dressing room thought I would have a slog and get out. But it didn’t happen that way,” Thomson said. “I can still picture the England side’s growing anxiety. They had stupid fields, bowled badly and everything was in the batsmen’s favour.”
After a couple of rain delays they were still 37 away at the end of day four, and 18,000 people turned up to see them edge towards their target the following morning. Australia were just four away when Ian Botham bowled to Thomson. “It was a half-tracker and a bit of an away swinger. A bad ball, really,” Thomson said. “I just tried to push it for a single rather than smash it. All I did was get an edge.”
The ball flew straight to Chris Tavaré at second slip, who caught it with his left hand but couldn’t hold it; Geoff Miller at first slip grabbed it before it fell to earth. “I couldn’t talk about it for years,” said Thomson. “It was one of the all-time low moments in my life.” In the crowd, attending his first Test, a 13-year-old Shane Warne sat transfixed; he went on to play 10 Boxing Day Tests, took a hat-trick as England were beaten in 1994, and now has a statue outside the ground.
Of the 10 MCG Boxing Day Tests England have won four, lost four and drawn two, making it a particularly fertile fixture. The other Ashes classic came in 1998. An Australia side already 2-0 up in the series and apparently coasting to victory, set just 175 to win and at one point 103 for two, were derailed by “their own complacency and an astounding effort from the England pace attack”, in the words of the Guardian’s Mike Selvey.
It ended with a mammoth four-hour session which ended after Mark Taylor decided, with seven wickets down and just 13 needed, to claim a discretionary half-hour to complete Australia’s victory. England promptly took three in five balls to win by 12.
Where once visiting English cricketers were hunters, this year’s tourists seem to have spent most of their trip being hunted. However their Christmas ends, though, it will have looked very different to the one the players experienced in 1903, when before going to the theatre on Christmas Eve they were taken on a tour of Sydney’s opium and gambling dens. “Interesting to see,” Sussex’s Bert Relf wrote. “Would not go again.”