October 20, 2021

The First Boxing Day Test

On December 26 each year, as most of Australia settles into a post Christmas lazing period, a hundred thousand cricket fans will descend on the MCG. This is the Boxing Day Test.


Massive crowd on Boxing Day

For something as popular, and as entrenched in the local culture, as the Boxing Day test, the history of the event is relatively short.

Until 1950, Boxing Day was reserved for interstate cricket. The traditional fixture was Victoria v New South Wales, in an era where cricket at this level still drew large crowds, and both teams normally featured a number of international stars.

Crowds of 20 000 were not unusual.

Australia's Neil Harvey is run out by a direct hit, Boxing Day, 1950.

But in 1950, Australia's cricket administrators decided to try something different. The first test in Melbourne to feature play on Boxing Day was the second of the 1950-51 Ashes series.

Starting on the 22nd, with rest days on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the third day's play fell on the 26th. A bumper crowd of more than 60 000 turned out to watch Australia, batting on a green pitch, struggle to 181 and then England, chasing a modest 179 for victory, lose two cheap wickets before the end of the day.

Australia pinched a narrow victory by 28 runs the following day.

Russell Endean

The trial was continued two seasons later, when the second test of the 1952-53 series against South Africa also featured play on Boxing Day.

The tourists were short of big names and a smaller crowd, 24 000, was on hand to watch South African number three Russell Endean make a workmanlike century. Although the visitors may have been underwhelming on paper, they caused a major upset on the last day of this match, when off spinner Hugh 'Toey' Tayfield bowled them to victory.

After this, the Boxing Day test concept went back on the shelf. It would be 16 seasons before it would be revived.

The West Indian team that came to Australia for the 1968-69 season was a side in transition.

A group of great players had recently retired, leaving a squad of largely untried youngsters. They were heavily reliant on their one genuine star; captain and all rounder Gary Sobers.

Gary Sobers in full flight.

Sobers arrived in Australia worn out from 18 months of near continuous cricket, and carrying a shoulder injury. The task he faced in trying to beat a talented and settled Australian line up, while carrying his own side, appeared almost insurmountable.

Nevertheless, the unfancied tourists caught Australia out in the first test in Brisbane. A young Clive Lloyd, a future captain, hit a lively 129, and Sobers himself exploited a worn last day wicket to take 6/73 and bowl his team to victory.

Australia, chastened, looked to Melbourne for redemption.

Graham McKenzie

The first proper Boxing Day Test did not begin auspiciously.

The 26th of December, 1968, was a grey, windy day, compared by Wisden to 'an English day in May.' The weather undoubtedly contributed to the low turnout, with only 18 000 spectators braving the conditions.

Australian captain Bill Lawry won the toss and sent the opposition in on a green, damp pitch.

The conditions were tailor made for Australian medium pacer Graham McKenzie, who took two wickets with the new ball and proved a handful all day. Only opener Roy Fredericks, on his test debut, was able to bat with any certainty.

Fredericks would finish a rain shortened first day on 76 not out , dominating the West Indies score of 6/176. Sobers made a scratchy 19 before being bowled by a McKenzie inswinger.

Bill Lawry on his way to 205

McKenzie's form would continue on the second day, as he claimed a career best 8/71, bowling the West Indies out for 200.

The second day was much warmer, and as the conditions improved, the wicket flattened out.

Australia lost an early wicket before Bill Lawry and Ian Chappell, captain and vice captain, combined for a record stand of 298. Lawry batted efficiently while Chappell, (again in the words of Wisden), 'used his fast footwork to demoralise the bowling.'

The speed of the partnership, just over 300 minutes, demonstrated the thinness of the West Indian bowling attack. Chappell was eventually bowled by Sobers for 165, while Lawry continued on to 205, his highest test score.

Watching the 1968 Boxing Day Test.

Chappell's hundred was the 1000th scored in test matches. Responding to Australia's tally of 510, the West Indian second innings subsided for 280, McKenzie completing a ten wicket haul in the process.

The crowds improved throughout the game, but reviews of the Boxing Day Test concept were mixed. And so again, after that summer, the idea went back on hiatus.

A huge crowd turned out on Boxing Day 1974.

But the next Boxing Day Test really helped to cement its position in the local sporting calendar. 

The Ashes series of 1974-75 was dominated by Australia, who backed a strong batting line up with a formidable array of fast bowlers. The cricket was fast paced and exciting, and 85,596 turned up on Boxing Day 1974 to watch the first day of the third test.

They were not disappointed; Australian spearheads Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee shared 6 wickets, as England struggled on a lively pitch (Australia eventually won the game by 8 wickets).

Full house on Boxing Day

From 1974, the idea began to take hold, and most of Melbourne's test matches after that season have started on Boxing Day.

The last time a Melbourne Test did not feature play on Boxing Day was 1989, when Australia played Pakistan in January. A one day match was played on Boxing Day that year.

And the last test that did not start on Boxing Day was in 1994, when the Ashes test of that season started on Christmas Eve. But every year since has featured a Test match starting on December 26th. And the popularity of the event, crowds of 90 000 are common now, only seems to grow each year.



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