January 25, 2017 - 3:39pm
For most Australians, cricket on Christmas Day probably means a backyard game with the family, or maybe a spot of beach cricket. But there may come a time - perhaps sooner than you think - when a BBL match is scheduled for Christmas night. There have been post-Christmas rumblings in the past couple of years, and not just those caused by too many serves of plum pudding.
"I think there is a growing sentiment that it is a possibility," Cricket Australia's chief executive James Sutherland said on ABC radio during the Boxing Day Test last month. "We need to think about the right venue for it and we also need to consult widely. We understand it's not just a narrow-minded cricket decision [...] But I think it is an opportunity and it would be a good thing for the game."
It would be easy to believe such a concept imitates the sporting landscape in the United States, where Christmas Day games have become a tradition in the NBA: five matches were played on December 25 last year. NFL games have also occasionally been played on Christmas Day.
In fact, elite cricket in Australia has a history of Christmas Day play going much, much further back.
In 1926, South Australia hosted Queensland in a Sheffield Shield match that started on Christmas Day, and thus began a tradition that continued until 1969. In most years during that time, the two teams met in a Shield fixture at Adelaide Oval that included play on Christmas Day - typically, Christmas was only a rest day if it happened to fall on a Sunday.
Occasionally the South Australians instead played the touring England side, and in those cases Christmas was made a rest day. But such was Adelaide Oval's affinity with Christmas Day cricket that twice the ground hosted Test matches that featured play on December 25. In 1951, West Indies wrapped up victory on Christmas Day over an Australia side captained by Arthur Morris.
And in 1967, Australia hosted India in a Test that started at Adelaide Oval on Saturday, December 23. Christmas Eve was a Sunday, so it was the rest day. But by Christmas morning - a Monday - the players were again out on the field representing their country. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this unusual occurrence is that hardly any of the Australians involved recall playing a home Test on Christmas Day.
Ian Chappell: "We didn't play on Christmas Day... did we?"
Bill Lawry: "I don't recall it."
Alan Connolly: "I can't remember anything about it [...] It would be against my thoughts to play cricket on Christmas Day, that's for sure."
David Renneberg: "I didn't think it was Christmas Day that we played, I thought it was Boxing Day. I wouldn't play on Christmas Day if I could help it. I think there's enough of it. I think a bit of family time on Christmas Day would be fine."
Even the captain, Bob Simpson, was rendered almost speechless to be told that he had played an Adelaide Test on Christmas Day. "That's amazing!" he said. "What year did you say? Let me write that down…"
And then: "I've got no memory of it whatsoever, and I'm normally good at these sorts of things! I probably failed, did I?" Yes, Simmo, quite the failure: 55 in the first innings and 103 in the second.
Such were the protests from these players, the men who actually spent their Christmas Day in the field for Australia, that doubts began to creep in. Could the scorecard have been wrong? It lists the match as being played on December 23, 25, 26, 27 and 28, but could that be a typo?
Not according to Wisden, which noted the unusual circumstance in a surprisingly casual manner: "Abid Ali cleaned up the Australia batting on Monday (Christmas Day)".
And journalist Rohan Rivett, in the following day's Canberra Times, wrote acidly of Australia's Christmas morning batting - Bob Cowper was "pathetic" despite making 92 - but complimented Farokh Engineer on his innings. "His 89 in 109 minutes while his colleagues gathered 38," Rivett wrote, "was champagne attacking batting which deserved the roars of a packed MCG, not the warm but pathetically thin clapping of the Yuletide hundreds scattered around the Adelaide Oval."
So, the Christmas Day Test of 1967 did really happen. And despite the lack of recollection from several of the Australians, at least two members of the XI are aware of the oddity. Paul Sheahanhad good reason to recall the game, for it was his Test debut.
"I played my first Test over Christmas Day," Sheahan said. "It was a slightly weird feeling when you're used to having Christmas with your family, and all of a sudden you're out on a cricket field. It's very difficult to open the presents!
"I'd have played on any day of the year [...] I think we were probably delightfully secular in those days. I don't remember there being any comment at all about having to play on Christmas Day. The only thing was that some were ruing the fact that they couldn't necessarily be with their families on Christmas Day."
Sheahan didn't bat on Christmas Day - he had made 81 on the first day of the Test and Australia lost their last four wickets for 24 on Christmas morning - but the bowlers had plenty of work to do as India reached 8 for 288 at stumps. Two of those wickets fell to Graham McKenzie, and though he doesn't remember them, he does recall the fact of playing on Christmas Day.
"I think in my career I played two Christmas Day Tests - one in Madras and one in Adelaide," McKenzie said. "It was pretty unusual to play a Test match on that day. Up until lunchtime it was pretty quiet, and then quite a few people came after lunch and had a little rest up on the hill, after their Christmas lunch."
Despite Rivett's reference to the "Yuletide hundreds", crowds did generally turn up to Adelaide Oval on Christmas Day, though often in the afternoon. Approximately 6000 spectators watched on Christmas Day in 1951, as West Indies closed out their victory over Australia. The crowd figure in 1967 is unknown, but Adelaideans were accustomed to having cricket on Christmas.
Barry Jarman was Australia's wicketkeeper in the 1967 Christmas Test and though he has no memory of that particular match, he recalls spending several Christmases in the field for South Australia in their Sheffield Shield matches against Queensland.
"They just said, 'Turn up and play', and we played," Jarman said. "We did what we were told. There'd be hardly anyone there before lunch, and then after lunch a few straggled in, and then by afternoon tea there'd be a few thousand there."
Jarman, as a local player, could at least have his family Christmas dinner in the evening, but not so the Queensland players, who would spend December 25, year after year, at Adelaide Oval. Ken "Slasher" Mackay, for example, played in 13 of the Christmas Shield games from 1946 to 1963, of which ten featured play on December 25.
"Cook and Wallis were the caterers," Jarman said. "I can remember they'd give us a very thin slice of turkey and a roast potato or two, some pumpkin and peas and that was it… There wasn't enough of it!"
So, there you have it. In 29 of the years from 1926 to 1969, Adelaide Oval hosted cricket on Christmas Day, and on the occasions when it didn't, that was often because Christmas was a Sunday and thus cricket's traditional rest day anyway. And in two of those years, the Christmas Day game was a Test match.
Just five years after that 1967 Christmas Test, Australia hosted Pakistan in a Test at Adelaide Oval that started on December 22. Play continued through Christmas Eve (which was a Sunday) but Christmas Day was made a rest day.
By then, the Christmas Day cricket tradition had died out, never to return - unless the BBL brings it back. "We need to think about the right venue for it," Sutherland said of a Christmas night BBL game. Adelaide Oval, given the history, would seem the logical choice.