May 22, 2022

The History of the Boxing Day Test

On December 26 each year, test cricket comes to the MCG in a celebrated local tradition. But the history of the Boxing Day Test is surprisingly short.

Massive crowd at the Boxing Day test
Massive crowd on Boxing Day

Cricket has long been popular on Boxing Day.

But until 1950, the day after Christmas was reserved for interstate cricket. The traditional fixture was Victoria v New South Wales.

Australia's two most populous states have a deep seated rivalry. They usually field strong cricket teams, featuring a number of past and present international representatives.

Up until the second World War, Sheffield Shield cricket still drew large crowds, often above 20 000 per day. Large numbers of fans would turn out to watch the stars of the era, playing for their states.

The Boxing Day fixture would be held at the MCG each season, causing some chagrin for the NSW players. Playing in Melbourne on Boxing Day meant Christmas away from their families.

History of the Boxing Day Test: Ashes cricket 1950
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. That year, the second test of the 1950-51 Ashes series was the first to feature play on Boxing Day.

Starting on December 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.

England, chasing a modest 179 for victory, lost two cheap wickets before the end of the day. Australia wona narrow victory by 28 runs the following day.

Russell Endean

The success of the Boxing Day experiment meant a repeat. Two seasons later, 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 the match. Their gun off spinner, Hugh 'Toey' Tayfield, exploited a wearing wicket and bowled them to victory.

After this, international cricket on Boxing Day went back into hiatus. 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.

History of the Boxing Day Test: Gary Sobers in 1968
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, 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 MacKenzie
Graham McKenzie

The first test match to start on 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.

History of the Boxing Day test: Bill Lawry scores 205
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, '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.

History of the Boxing Day test: 1968
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 were mixed. People were busy at Christmas with family commitments, many people were away on holiday.

Again, after that summer, the idea went back on hiatus.

History of the Boxing Day test: huge crowd in 1974
A huge crowd turned out on Boxing Day 1974.

But the next Boxing Day Test would help 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, Australia was ascendant.

85,596 people 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.

Every year since has featured a Test match starting on December 26th. The popularity of the event has turned it into a tradition, as much apart of the holiday season for many as family and presents.

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