When on December 26th, 1975 a West Indies side widely regarded to be the finest on the globe took to the field for day one of the Melbourne test match, an 86,000-strong throng of Australians were offered a glimpse at what would become a staple of the cricketing summer for years to come: The Boxing Day Test Match.
With the series tied at 1-1 at Christmas, the West Indies’ dominant display to level at the WACA just a week earlier prominent in the Aussie psyche, express-quicks Jeff Thomson and Denis Lillee ran riot to dismiss the opposition cheaply. Thomson ripped out the top order and picked up the first five; Lillee bowled Viv Richards and claimed the next four. The Australian opening pair cruised into the end of play and the appetite was well and truly whet for the cricketing carnival to become a regular tradition.
Australia won the test by 8 wickets and went on to crush the series 5-1, collective Christmas hangovers remedied by high-class test cricket being played at full throttle between two ferociously competitive sides. Although the official inception of the occasion in the calendar, stymied initially, but no doubt ultimately moulded by Kerry Packer’s drive to modernise cricket with his newfangled World Series, didn’t arrive until 1980, the test is widely regarded to be the precursor of the sporting bucket-list-behemoth that exists today.
Although at the height of summer for Melburnians, for English cricket fans the contest provides the perfect curtain call to a long hard day of festivities, the pitch report creeping ever closer as Waternoose is finally thwarted in Monsters Inc., team news filtering through as repeats of Outnumbered finally run out, and the first ball arriving, a shiny conker glistening like a seamed-Christmas bauble, as the apprehension finally takes its toll on the family, out like lights on the adjoining sofa.
You stare out the window and imagine you’re there, greeted by an amphitheatre of noise as Chris Tremlett steams in from his mark. Somehow, he extracts steep and rearing bounce from the cold and wet tarmac in your front driveway and Shane Watson, glove uprooted from the handle, can only fend to Kevin Pietersen. You’re transported back to your front room as the clock ticks past midnight; in the dying embers of the day, the perfect gift arrives.
In recent years, the Melbourne test has not been as much of a happy hunting ground – for England supporters, of course, but for bowlers, aficionados of genuine contest, and groundsmen alike too. Since that famous triumph for England in 2010, Australia have comprehensively farmed the match, winning five of the past seven, including revenge over England in 2013 in front of the largest crowd ever drawn. In that span, Steve Smith averages 136 at the ground and has registered four consecutive centuries.
No, it’s not that attendances have dwindled as such – the Ashes continues to attract like bees to nectar – or that Australia have never been successful before – between 1999 and 2007 the side won nine consecutive Boxing Day Tests – more that the Melbourne test has just been starved of a genuine white-collar rivalry to enliven the coliseum; the ball fizzing and spitting through to the keeper and the Australians offered some bite for their bark.
No series has arrived in Melbourne alive and in the balance since England used success as a springboard to a first away Ashes win since 1987. Until now.
As Virat Kohli and co. roll into town, their bowling pack firing down bouncers as if crafted in an outback lab and the skipper registering his 6th ton in the country – more than any current Australian batsman – the series lies tantalisingly balanced at one apiece, just as it did on that day in 1975, when the prescient Australian public witnessed the birth of a true spectacle. Whilst they cannot have foreseen the gem that is Rishabh Pant in close proximity to a stump microphone, the re-drawing of the battle lines between Kohli and Tim Paine at the newly-christened Perth Stadium has produced a rivalry, rough around the edges but largely the right side of the moral compass, reminiscent of old.
The cornerstone to India’s desperate attempts to draw first blood in SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) , the test match once more has a licence to thrill. BT Sport’s coverage ensures a blockbuster reprisal in its role at the epilogue of the Christmas schedule awaits, but it is also the fitting conclusion to a belting year of Test cricket, unique by nature and incomparable in full flow. Book-ended between Alistair Cook’s heroic vigil and the present day has been an emphatic reaffirmation that the game’s purest pursuit is doing just fine.
Sandpaper aside, although the punishments handed down will surely mitigate the development of ball tampering in years to come, the year has been punctuated with several competitive and thrilling series; with precious away victories; clinics of probing bowling and obdurate batting. According to Australian statistician Ric Findlay, the number of centuries and five-fors are in perfect harmony for the first time: there has been 65 of each (in 2014, for example, there were 110 centuries and 50 five-fors), and but for late cameos from Mushfiqur Rahim and Tom Latham the year would also be uniquely deficient in double-centuries.
There are signs too that Test cricket can co-exist, and mutually benefit, the burgeoning global sphere of Twenty-20 cricket. Ireland and Afghanistan have test status thanks to their exploits in the shorter formats. The ICC Test Championship no doubt draws its origins in the myriad league tables of franchise cricket. Day-night and four-day trials have arisen from the same school of thought.
As Christmas comes to a close, take solace in the fact that test cricket never will.