Jeremy Henderson reveals that the Boxing Day Test is not such an ingrained custom and gives the beleaguered tourists hope with the sorry tale of Ross Duncan.
Tradition is a concept which seems to vary, depending upon the age of the culture in which it is discussed. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as "The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation". And so it is in those civilisations with a long history spanning many generations. Less so, however, in a very young "civilisation".
Take Perth, for example. Here it seems that whenever an event occurs for more than two consecutive years, it transcends from the realm of coincidence to one of "tradition". Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear talk, oxymoronically I would have thought, of "starting a new tradition".
Thus it is that many Australians will speak lovingly of the "tradition" of the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, implying, somehow, that its origins lie somewhere in the deep recesses of time, before Australia became a Federation – the days of Bannerman and Spofforth, where any recorded pictures are black and white, and when WG Grace stood tall on the cricket landscape.
Tell them that the "tradition" started only on a regular basis in 1980, and they will look at you as if you have come from another planet to destroy civilisation as they know it. It is true that there were five prior occasions when Test cricket was played there on Boxing Day, and indeed an indigenous team played the MCC there on Boxing Day in 1866, but the annual ritual only started with a match against New Zealand in 1980, with only one year off since, for an ODI against Sri Lanka in 1989.
There is a brilliant tram in Melbourne. It is the number 70. Leaving the MCG, it stops next door at the Rod Laver Arena, home of the Asutralian Open Tennis Championship for a fortnight each January, and then, in about 15 minutes, it will take you to the 56,000 capacity Docklands Stadium. On day four of this Test match you will be able, if you choose, to wait until the close of play at the MCG, hop onto the number 70, and arrive at Docklands Stadium just in time for the start of the Big Bash League game between the Melbourne Renegades and the current champions, the Perth Scorchers.
That just about sums up Melbourne's priorities. It may be only the 58th largest city in the world, but it is the ONLY one outside of North Korea and the United States to have a stadium with a capacity of over 100,000. And there's another 56,000 stadium a stone's throw away.
It's no coincidence that Melbourne regularly tops the list of the world's most liveable cities! If you happen to love cricket and Australian Rules football, there really is nowhere else in the world to live – the tennis is just an added bonus. This is Melbourne's raison d'être!
And so it is that well before Christmas, tens of thousands of Melburnians are looking forward, not to what Santa may bring, not questioning whether they have been naughty or nice, but to the weather forecast for Boxing Day, deciding what might be suitable food and drink for their picnic, and wondering who will win the toss. These are people who know what is important in life, while the poor fools in the rest of the world rush off to be trampled in the Boxing Day sales. The Boxing Day Test represents the opportunity for Melbourne to celebrate its very essence, and to make visiting teams suffer accordingly!
And so, to the cricket…
With over 110 Test matches, including the first three ever played, there are inevitably many tales of great achievement at the MCG. No surprise that the greatest run scorer there, by a considerable margin, was Don Bradman (1,671 @ 128.54), and the greatest wicket-taker Dennis Lillee (82 @ 21.93). Remarkably, Lillee has 26 more wickets than the next player on the list, a notorious texter with hair restoration connections.
Little, though, is heard about the far less fortunate Ross Duncan, whose solitary Test for Australia was at the MCG in 1971. The Melbourne Test had originally been scheduled to start on 31 December 1970, but Melbourne was inundated with rain of such intensity and duration that the match was abandoned without a ball being bowled, although the first ever ODI (40 overs per side) was then played there instead.
A replacement Test at the MCG was scheduled for January 21, but in the meantime, in the second innings of the Sydney Test, Graham McKenzie retired hurt after being hit in the face by a rising ball from John Snow and retired from Test cricket just two wickets short of Richie Benaud's Australian record haul of 248.
The selectors rushed in Duncan as a replacement, as he had taken 13 wickets for Queensland against Victoria just a month before at the MCG. Sadly for Duncan, he could not replicate that form. He suffered from a recurring heel injury and would gain temporary relief by playing with the sole of a rubber thong (flip-flop) stuffed into his boot. On other occasions he used a high-jumper's heel pad, which was like a small plastic cup, inserted in the boot to help get through long days in the field.
During the Melbourne Test the injury swelled badly, and he only bowled in the first innings. He ended up with three off 8 balls, took none for 30, and was replaced for the next Test by one DK Lillee, making his Test debut. I am pleased to report that, despite such a brief and modest Test career, Duncan is now President of the Lord's Taverners in Queensland.
It is probably something of a relief to all of us that England's record at the MCG is considerably less bad than it is at the WACA or 'Gabba, having won 20 and lost 28, with just seven draws. Since their first Boxing Day Test in 1982, they have won four and lost five, with no draws. So, it would seem that the playing field might be a little more level this time. Two of those wins were by an innings, one by 12 runs, and one, in 1982, by just three runs, when Border and Thomson fell agonisingly short after defying the odds to put on 80 for the last wicket.
While Starc's bruised foot will lead lead England supporters to hope that his replacement Jackson Bird peforms like Ross Duncan, it is perhaps worth being aware that Steve Smith's batting average at the MCG is 127.6, although none of his three centuries has exceeded 192. None of the other Australians can even boast a three-figure average, although Usman Khawaja is close, on 99, and Starc up there on 84. Interestingly, though, no member of either team has ever made a century there in an Ashes Test.
The only bowlers to have taken Ashes wickets there are Anderson (8), Lyon (6) and Broad (2), so there is plenty of scope for improvement.
It seems likely that there will be at least one English Test debutant this year. No doubt, he would love to emulate what is quite possibly the most significant Test debut of all time.
Playing in the first ever Test, at the MCG in March 1877, and facing the very first ball in Test cricket, Charles Bannerman, though born in Kent, opened the batting for Australia, and eventually retired hurt for 165, out of a total of 245. That score not only remains the highest ever scored by an Australian on debut, but, amazingly, retains the record as the highest percentage of runs out of the team total in a Test innings (67.3%). Few pictures of Bannerman remain, other than the one of his meeting with a 21-year-old called Don in 1930.
So let us hope for a tight match where, for once, the focus is not on the pitch, the weather, extra-curricular activities or the chit chat, but rather on the pointless beauty that is cricket itself.