The Christmas joy, festivities and good tidings that have been enjoyed over the previous weeks need no introduction. Yet as the last mince pie is eaten, the remnants of used wrapping paper are cleared away and the celebrations wind down, cricket fans – particularly those Down Under – know the fun is only just beginning. The sound of jingling bells is replaced by leather on willow, as Christmas corals quickly give way to shouts and cheers from the stands. For the 39th year running, the Melbourne Cricket Ground played host to the now-legendary Boxing Day Test when Australia took on – and were comprehensively beaten by – India, who took an unassailable 2-1 lead going into the fourth and final Test of the series.
Anyone who has attended, let alone played in, an MCG Boxing Day Test will be well aware that it is one of the most intense experiences for any cricketer playing at the highest level, as crowds of up to 90,000 fill out what is perhaps the world’s most imposing cricket stadium, the vast majority of them baying for an Australian victory. At the sense of any slight danger or weakness, the home side’s players and fans alike only increase the intensity, meaning there can be nowhere to hide when things when a touring side feels up against it. It is no surprise, then, that some of the most memorable matches, moments and contests Test cricket has ever seen have been played in Melbourne across the five days that follow Christmas Day.
1974 – Australia vs England
The MCG, hosting only its fourth ever Boxing Day Test, served up a thriller between England and Australia as the third Test of the 1974-75 Ashes series. Until that point, Australia had dominated the series, crushing England in both previous matches as the devastatingly quick Jeff Thomson showcased his ability to full effect. Things seemed to be following a similar vein on Boxing Day when Thomson again made inroads into the English batting line-up, taking four wickets including the key scalp of Alan Knott, who had been England’s main source of resistance with a dogged 52. Yet having dismissed the tourists for a below-par 242, Australia fared no better themselves. Despite a promising fifty at the top of the order from Ian Redpath, they fell victim to an on-song Bob Willis, who took five wickets to reduce them to 241, just one run behind England after the first two innings of the match. If at this point it was not clear how closely contested the match was, it certainly became so by the end of the third innings. England, despite getting off to a strong start thanks to Dennis Amiss’ 90, collapsed from 152 for 2 to 182 for 8. Some late hitting from Tony Greig propelled them somewhat, but Thomson came roaring back to finish with 4 wickets in the innings and eight in the match.
England had been dismissed for 244, almost identical to the match’s two previous scores, setting Australia 246 to win in just over a day. The final day’s play swung back and forth between the two sides. England struck early to set Australia back to 5 for 2, but the hosts chipped away at the target with a number of important partnerships, with Greg Chappell making a half-century. As play entered the final session, and England began to feel the match slipping away from them, they began to look for a draw rather than playing for the win, beginning to bowl to heavily defensive fields in a move which frustrated the Australian batsmen. Though they tried to increase the scoring rate, Australia went into the game’s final over still needing 14 runs to win with three wickets in hand. The batsmen tried to force the issue, but fell short as the final over progressed, losing a wicket in the process. The match ended as a draw, though all that separated the two teams was 8 runs, or 2 wickets. Right up until its conclusion, this famous Boxing Day Test could have gone any one of four ways.
1982 – Australia vs England
8 years on, the two Ashes rivals would play out an even more dramatic Boxing Day Test, one decided by the finest of margins. England, 2-0 down in the series going into the fourth match, desperately needed a victory to keep themselves in with a chance of retaining the urn. Being put in to bat first, England recovered from a shaky start to build a respectable total, with Chris Tavaré making an uncharacteristically fluent 89 and Allan Lamb an aggressive 83. Australia struck back later in the innings to peg England back to 284 all out, with Rodney Hogg and Bruce Yardley taking 4 wickets each. As in 1974, though, the difference between the two teams after the first innings turned out to be no more than single figures. Fifties from Kim Hughes, David Hookes and Rodney Marsh spurred the home side on, but 3 late wickets from Geoff Miller meant that Australia were bowled out for 287, with a lead of just 4 runs. The game remained on a knife edge throughout the third innings, as neither side managed to break away from the other. Important contributions with the bat were made by Graeme Fowler, Ian Botham, Derek Pringle and Bob Taylor, but the Australian bowlers remained resilient to keep England under 300 to give their side a target of 292 to win.
As the run chase began there was little to choose between the two sides, but a century partnership between Hookes and Kim Hughes for the fourth wicket saw Australia to the relative comfort of 173 for 3. When they both fell in quick succession, however, a collapse was sparked that saw them lose 6 wickets for 47 runs, with Norman Cowans claiming 6 wickets in the innings. Just where all appeared lost, however, last man Jeff Thomson along with key batsman Allan Border refused to be moved. They obdurately chipped away at the total, putting on 37 before close of play, and another 33 on the morning of the final day. Against all the odds, they managed to get within 4 runs of their target, before Thomson hung his bat at a wide delivery from Botham, offering a simple chance to Tavaré at second slip. Agonisingly, the catch was fumbled, but while the ball hung in the air, Geoff Miller managed to run around to claim the rebound. England had won by just 3 runs – at the time the joint-smallest margin of victory in Ashes cricket until 2005, when England won at Edgbaston by 2 runs in remarkably similar circumstances.
1987 – Australia vs New Zealand
Of course, it is not just England who come to Melbourne to play out classic Boxing Day matches, as Australia’s other Old Enemy proved in 1987. The New Zealand side that toured Australia contained some of the country’s finest ever players, including Martin Crowe and Sir Richard Hadlee, but needed a result in the final match of a series they were losing 1-0. Having been put in to bat, the Black Caps were looking steady at 187 for 2, thanks to a substantial partnership from John Wright and Martin Crowe. Unfortunately, though, both fell before making centuries – in Wright’s case edging Craig McDermott to keeper Gregory Dyer on 99 – as the tourists finished on 317 all out, with 5 wickets for McDermott. Australia’s response with the bat put them at an advantage in the game. Although they struggled at first, with Hadlee on top form, they were bailed out by the lower order, with Peter Sleep making a Test-best 90 and debutant Anthony Dodemaide an obdurate 50 to give the Australians a lead of 40 runs.
New Zealand’s batting order struggled second time out, with many players making starts only to be dismissed before making half-centuries thanks to the persistent efforts of Dodemaide, who finished with 6 wickets. They were, however, expertly marshalled by the great Martin Crowe, whose brisk 71 ensured that they had a significant target of 247 to set the Australians. The run chase started brightly, as David Boon made a half-century opening the innings, while several of his team-mates made important contributions to reach 209 for 5, within 40 runs of victory. Hadlee, however, was not about to give up on the match and the series, and made his presence felt as soon as he was returned to the bowling attack. He took 3 wickets as Australia fell to 227 for 9, 20 runs short of winning or 5 overs from a draw. The final pair of McDermott and Michael Whitney decided that given the state of play in the series, their best option was to defend and play for a draw, rather than gamble for victory. This tactic evidently paid off, as they managed to hold out against a rejuvenated bowling attack to secure the draw and with it a series victory, in yet another Boxing Day Test that had been wide open right until the last.
1998 – Australia vs England
As was the case in the two preceding decades, the MCG also saw the Boxing Day Test turn into an Ashes thriller in 1998. It is well documented that the 1990s proved one of the toughest periods in the history of English Test cricket, with the Ashes tour of 1998-99 one of many disappointing series for the tourists. By the time they got to the fourth Test they were already 2-0 down, with confirmation that the Ashes would not be retained. But England, put in to bat by Australia, did not simply roll over once again. Captain Alec Stewart led by example as he made an excellent century opening the innings, ably supported by Mark Ramprakash’s 63. After both fell in consecutive overs, however, England wobbled and were eventually dismissed for 270, a fairly disappointing outcome having been 200 for 3 at one stage.
Their bowlers were apparently undeterred by this, however, with Darren Gough making a particularly impressive start as he dismissed both the Australian openers. Australian wickets fell regularly as Gough picked up a five-for, but the one man England could not dismiss was Steve Waugh, who stayed at the crease for nearly 70 overs, making 122 not out in the process. Batting with the tail, he managed to see Australia to 340 all out, giving them a significant lead of 70 runs. Finding themselves in an all too familiar position chasing the game, England may have let their heads drop when they lost early wickets, but were spurred on by fifties from Stewart, Nasser Hussain and Graeme Hick.
Yet despite their batsmen’s best efforts in getting them to the somewhat respectable total of 244 in the face of a strong bowling attack that shared the wickets out between themselves, England were only able to set Australia the eminently attainable target of 175 runs to win. Things seemed to be moving along comfortably for the home side, as they eased to within 45 runs of their target, with only 3 wickets down, before English bowler Dean Headley turned the game completely on its head. Offering a deceptively high amount of pace, he stunned the home crowd by taking 4 wickets in 3 overs as Australia fell to 140 for 7. Though a stubborn partnership between Waugh and debutant Matthew Nicholson edged Australia closer, when the latter was also dismissed by Headley (for his sixth wicket) the game was on a knife edge. Waugh, facing the first ball of the over following Nicholson’s wicket, was happy to take a single rather than protect the tailenders (something he was later heavily criticised for by sections of the media), only to watch Darren Gough dismiss Stuart MacGill and Glenn McGrath within 3 balls to give England the most dramatic and improbably of victories, by only 12 runs. Though they may have been overcome for the most part of that Ashes series, the English side had proved that at their best they were capable of playing just as impressive and entertaining cricket as the Australians.
2000, Australia vs West Indies
Any Australians reading this article so far may rightly feel a little irked that a piece about Boxing Day Tests in Australia is yet to feature even one Australian victory, that it perhaps downplays the ability of their Test team over the previous few decades. However, the reverse is in fact true – Australia’s home record has generally been so good that the majority of Boxing Day Tests have been won so comfortably as to not be worth writing about as a memorable contest for the neutral, while their defeats have been the ones decided by such fine margins as to be worthy of recognition. Yet even though their resounding victory over the West Indies in 2000 could fall into the former category, it is certainly notable for as a demonstration of how great the Australian side of the late 1990s and early 2000s was.
West Indian skipper Jimmy Adams clearly backed his side’s formidable bowling attack when he opted to put Australia in to bat at the toss, and they performed strongly for the most part, dismissing all but one Australian batsman for below 50. Almost inevitably, however, the one player they couldn’t dislodge was the great Steve Waugh, who made an unbeaten century – much of it batting with the tail – to advance Australia to the solid total of 364. The West Indies’ response was meek to say the least. In the face of some fine fast bowling, they fell to 28 for 5 early on and had their blushes only marginally spared by a valiant 60 not out from a young Marlon Samuels, as well as 42 from keeper Ridley Jacobs. Thanks in large part to Samuels the tourists managed to avoid the follow-on by a solitary run, as Andy Bichel starred with the ball for Australia, taking 5 wickets.
As was almost always the case with great Australian teams, they ruthlessly pressed home their advantage without ever really giving the West Indies a chance. Justin Langer and Mark Waugh impressed with 80 and 78 not out respectively, as Australia set the West Indies the unlikely target of 462, with the match still in its third day. While an Australian victory was certain, the manner in which they did so underlined their peerless ability. By stumps on Day 3 the West Indies were 10 for 3. The next morning they fell to 23 for 6. Again it was only down to Samuels and Jacobs that the team total had even passed 100, in this case being bundled out for 109. Jason Gillespie had been at his devastating best, taking 6 for 40. If anyone had been under any doubts whatsoever, here they were put to bed. The once-great West Indies were in severe decline, having been decisively replaced as the undisputed best Test team in the world by an Australian side at the peak of its powers.
Image Credit: r reeve