When Joe Burns takes the ground wearing the Baggy Green no. 441 the next day after Christmas, no matter which path his career takes after this Test, he’ll be a proud Aussie to have received the Baggy Green on the 26th of December, the day which marks one of the greatest traditions in the game – the Boxing Day Test at the MCG.
A Gentleman’s Game that Cricket is, one expects a lot of savoring and nurturing of traditions around it. Sadly, there aren’t many. And some like the Boxing Day Tests in South Africa and New Zealand failed to stand the Tests of time, however, Boxing day Test returns to New Zealand after 11 years with island nation Sri Lanka touring New Zealand. And hence the few that are there deserve the importance they receive.
The Boxing Day Test at the ‘G is one of the most important traditions of the game that the sport loving Aussies has duly fostered over the last three-four decades as the best way to make the journey from the Christmas to the New Years Eve, screaming ‘Go Aussie Go’ with Zinc painted on faces, either facing the television or the lush green spectacle that the Melbourne Cricket Ground turns into under the December Sun.
The beginnings of this tradition remain sketchy at best as the first time Cricket at Melbourne Cricket Ground coincided with Boxing Day was in 1950 when the fourth day’s play between England and Australia fell on December 26 of that year. An exciting contest lit up by the performance of a mystery spinner, the first of his kind, Jack Iverson or the Wrong-Grip-Jake, whose career and mystery spin was to be limited to only one series, this Test had set the perfect tone for the Boxing Day Tradition, as much to the delight of Aussie fans, Australia edged out a Compton less England by 28 runs.
However, one more Test between Australia and South Africa in 1952 and Cricket and Boxing Day had to wait 16 years for another tryst when propelled by Bill Lawry double hundred and Graham Mckenzie career best 8/71, the Aussies mauled the West Indies who had surprised quite a few to win the first Test of the series. This was the first time that the Test match started on the Boxing Day.
But it was not before the 1974 Ashes match did the Boxing Day tradition quite actually take off. And this match, despite ending as a draw, threw up some heroic performances as a limping Fred Titmus went on to bowl crucial 29 overs on the last day, after being brought down to the ground by a Thomson scorcher. Titmus’ valiance and Australia’s cautious approach ultimately meant the hosts fell 8 runs short of a victory with 2 wickets in hand.
From 1980 onwards, Boxing Day saw cricket at the MCG every year. In fact, 1989 saw a rare event which hasn’t been repeated much to the delight of the purists – An ODI on Boxing Day. And almost every match throw up a new hero, a new sight to remember for ages, a few moments that took one’s breath away. Be it the sight of Lillee’s celebration after getting Viv out at the end of the day in 1981 to reduce West Indies to 10/4 or Allan Border’s heartbreak at the non striker’s end in 1982, or Curtly Ambrose’s bold declaration ‘I’ll take 10 here’ and winning it for Windies in 3 days in 1996, the Boxing Day Tests have rarely failed to deliver anything that an average cricket lover yearns for. And the beauty of it all is how the history of Boxing Day Test encapsulated the ugly as well – the no balling of Muralitharan in 1995, as if to round up the whole tale.
Much of the charm of the Boxing day Tests lies in the way few of the 22 men overcome the awe of the occasion to rise up to the situation. A ground that is as massive as any with the largest capacity of spectators whose dictionaries have more abuses than adjectives (as any Pom would testify) can unnerve the best in the business. And add to the mix the tradition of Boxing Day and you have the one of the toughest Test of a cricketer’s character, arguably much tougher than playing a Test at Lord’s or Eden Gardens.
The Boxing Day Test can easily lay its claim to be the biggest stage in Cricket, the pressures and perils of which can get the better of any Aussie, forget the visiting players. No wonder only 7 out of 38 Boxing Day Tests have been won by the visiting teams. Matthew Hayden, a man who definitely can claim to have conquered this stage with 7 centuries, throws some light on this immense pressure in his autobiography Standing My Ground:
“The walk from the centre wicket block at the MCG to the dressing rooms can be a stairway to heaven or hell, depending on how you’ve fared. You walk 80 metres or so off the field to open the massive gates on the fence, then you get sledged or cheered for another 20 metres as you trudge through the crowd. It’s the longest walk to a dressing room on Earth….”
To come up on top on such an occasion gives a peek into the mental toughness of the cricketers. And to do so on debut means getting earmarked for greater things. Ask Brett Lee, who in 1999, was just another NSW pacer with little to show for a First Class record, before he went on to break India’s back in his first test at the G. And the rest, as they say, is history. So does Joe Burns have it in him to set the biggest stage on fire? Only time will tell. Till then, the average cricket lover would hope that the other 21 players put on a show that can make this tradition stronger and sweeter.