KEN PIESSE has seen every Boxing Day Test since the first in 1968-69. He takes us through some of the highlights of those matches and predicts the outcome of the next edition:
DOMINATING a Test match in front of near-capacity Melbourne crowds creates new heroes in an instant. The champions who produce their best under the gaze of 90,000 Boxing Day fans are remembered forever.
Day 1 of Melbourne’s Christmas Test match is one of the great events on Australia’s sports calendar, the equivalent of AFL Grand Final day, the Australian Grand Prix and the Melbourne Cup.
Many overseas visitors tend to do the Melbourne-Sydney “double” over the festive season, the choices outside the cricket plentiful from the Mornington Peninsula wineries to Winkipop and the awesome surf beaches of the west coast and on to Sydney for the New Year’s Eve fireworks and the Manly Ferry.
The MCG is invariably in pristine condition for the cricket. The ground’s “drop-in” wicket — first used in 1999 — has encouraged a pacier, more consistent bounce. More batsmen are dismissed caught behind than trapped lbw as once was the case in the early ‘80s when Australia’s captain Greg Chappell complained that the pitch was spoiling the cricket and should be dug up.
Proud Victorian Bill Lawry agreed and said the playing arena was also so motley he wouldn’t walk his dog out there.
The MCG is now a showpiece and while the wicket is not as fast as Brisbane or Perth, the bounce is consistently true and those who can bat through into the middle sessions tend to cash in under the afternoon sun.
Elite openers Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden always regarded Melbourne’s Christmas Week Test as their “Grand Final” match each season.
When Langer made 250 in the 2002-03 Christmas Test, he scored 146 on the first day and doubled-up with 104 on the second. Other than his wedding day and the birth of his girls, he said it was his ultimate lifetime thrill.
With six centuries in seven Boxing Day Tests, Hayden was also consistently moved and lifted by the enormity and enthusiasm of the crowds.
“As much as I loved playing on my home wicket of Brisbane, the Christmas Test in Melbourne was always very, very special,” Hayden said. “We all loved it.”
Melbourne is home to Australia’s cricketing Hall of Fame, priceless museum relics and a fabulous sports reference library featuring the collection of Brisbane solicitor and collector Pat Mullins.
Last summer’s Test featured a six-spree on the fifth morning from Mitchell Starc and the unlikeliest of Australian wins after Pakistan’s first innings had meandered into a third day. Starc is missing this time around, robbing the Australians of some firepower, but it is unlikely to make much difference given the shipwreck which is England.
Melbourne is a result wicket. Only one of the past 19 MCG Tests has been drawn.
Australian captain’s Steve Smith’s Test average is higher here than at any other mainland ground.
Melbourne crowds during Test week are happy, knowledgeable and thrill to the contest. Don Bradman was more prolific at the MCG than at any other venue. His nine centuries are a ground record, his 270 in the 1936-37 Ashes series coming when Australia was 2-0 and in danger of losing the Ashes in his first months as captain. Crowds of almost 60,000 per day were averaged over six days that New Year week. A young Bill Brown played in this memorable game and said the crowd applauded wildly every time a catch was taken – “and we were only doing fielding practice!”
SPORTSHOUNDS.COM.AU READY RECKONER
THE MCG & THE ASHES
Ground capacity: 100,012
Likely crowd this time around: 98,000
Ends: Great Southern Stand (south), Members End/Cigar Stand/Northern end (north)
First Ashes Test: 1876-77
Australia’s record v England: Played 55: Won 28, Lost 20, Drawn 7
Last five Ashes Tests: Australia 3-2
Highest team scores: Australia: 604, 1936-37; England: 589, 1911-12
Highest solo scores: Australia: Bob Cowper 307, 1965-66; England: Walter Hammond 200, 1928-29
Best bowling: Australia: Arthur Mailey 9-121, 1920-21; England: Wilfred Rhodes 8-68, 1903-04
Last Ashes Test: Chris Rogers makes a hometown hundred as Australia wins by eight wickets inside four days; an Ashes record 91,102 attends on the opening day
Local hero: The Vics don’t have anyone in this week’s Test XI, so it has to be someone like Warnie who is here doing the commentary… also look for the Bring Back Deano banner which is as much a part of Melbourne’s Boxing Day as High Tea at the Windsor
Stats fact: The ground’s drop-in wicket, first used in 1999, allows tall scoring on even fourth innings of matches. But at under 34 runs per wicket — the lowest average at any of the mainland grounds — the MCG in no Adelaide for batsmen.
Steve Smith’s average here: 127 (look out England)
The players say: Survive the first morning in Melbourne and cash-in. The extra grass cover courtesy of the drop-in wicket allows the ball to come on nicely. In mid-match with the ball older and softer, batting is comfortable and bowlers must really bend their backs to extract any life
Expect: Australia to make it 4-0, in 13 and a half sessions
IT HAPPENED IN THE MCG PRESS BOX
AUTUMN 1991-92: The World Cup final, England v Pakistan, Melbourne Cricket Ground: Most of the near record crowd of 90,000 at the MCG were cheering for Pakistan to defeat England and take the title… but many of us in the press box had only one eye on the cricket.
The Melbourne Cricket Club had just included a giant television screen in the corner. But instead of the cricket being on, someone had hooked it into Foxtel and the final of the women’s mud wrestling from Sydney.
The two very well-endowed girls wore ever-so-flimsy string bikinis and were on their knees in the mud, doing what you do in a mud wrestle.
The action was coming to a fever pitch just about the time Pakistan’s captain Imran Khan asked his match-winning left-armer Wasim Akram for a second spell from the Cigar Stand end.
Just as “Wasi” was about to uproot Allan Lamb’s off peg with one which swung in and jagged away — totally unplayable — one of the girls tore the bikini top from the other.
The roar from the press box was considerable but luckily for us the crowd almost simultaneously drowned us out as Lamb’s off stump almost landed in the Great Southern Stand!
A tall story — and absolutely true.
I AM particularly enjoying one of the new Christmas books just arrived from the UK. In Tandem by Patrick Ferriday highlights cricket’s great pace pairs from Gregory and McDonald on.
Of 1970s superstars Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, Ferriday writes: “There was something innately anti-authoritarian about their make-up and approach that caught the mood of the Australian youth. Music, culture and society in general had drifted from the swinging sixties to something more sinister — Altamont, Vietnam and anti-apartheid riots. The times were indeed changing and Lillee and Thomson with their hair and lifestyle were a perfect fit to bring a new generation to the cricket, especially as they arrived together to meet a bunch of hapless Poms at the Gabba in November 1974.”
Ferriday has a penchant for cricket history. By day he is a horse-racing commentator. Now that’s a different mix…
Merry Christmas everyone.
* In Tandem and other new Christmas-New Year titles are available from Ken Piesse’s website, cricketbooks.com.au