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A file photo of Ricky Ponting (left) and Rahul Dravid. Photo: Reuters
A file photo of Ricky Ponting (left) and Rahul Dravid. Photo: Reuters

The curious history of sport and Boxing Day

On Friday, the MCG will host the 39th Boxing Day Test to be played in Australia, a traditional international fixture that dates back to the 1950/51 season

It’s that time of the year when there’s a sense of festivity to competitive sport—the utter charm of age-old traditions coming to the fore. The week-long festive sport is here. On Friday, when India and hosts Australia square off in the penultimate game of the 4-test match series, the venue—the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG)—will epitomize an occasion few cricket grounds can match.

The ‘G’ as the MCG is also referred to, will host the 39th Boxing Day Test to be played in the country, a traditional international fixture that dates back to the 1950/51 season.

In case you’re still confused, ‘Boxing Day’ has nothing to do with boxing. Boxes? Maybe. Or simply, consider Boxing Day as the British equivalent of America’s Thanksgiving.

For a start, there are multiple theories about Boxing Day’s origins or the term’s etymology. The oft quoted among them being that it traces its inception to the Middle Ages in Britain, where workers were given gifts and presents (known as ‘Christmas Boxes’) usually on the first weekday after Christmas, in recognition of their service through the year.

As per English tradition, servants would have to work on Christmas to serve the aristocracy or noblemen. In compensation, they’d get the next day off to visit and celebrate with their families. Just as they left, the workers’ employers would present them with a box of gifts. That’s a tradition dating back at least 500 years ago.

Today, Boxing Day in Britain (bar Ireland, where they call it. St.Stephen’s Day) is all about getting down to Oxford Street, braving the freeze and cashing in on the “sales" on offer. Or, if you are into sport, there’s always football—meaning, a quick dash to the pub or the terraces of various football grounds. For the punter, Boxing Day is about making a few quid more, for it’s a time for the races.

The curious origins of Boxing Day sport date back to 1860, when two of the world’s oldest football clubs met in Sandygate Road in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Sheffield FC and Hallam FC played out a fixture on 26 December, also known as ‘Feast of Stephen’, which the former won 2-0. The tradition was incorporated by the Football League in its inaugural season (1888-89). On 26 December that year, league leaders Preston North End hosted bottom-placed club Derby County, comprehensively beating them 5-0 in the first ever Boxing Day fixture in professional sport. One hundred and twenty-six years later, while the sport itself has gone through several transformations—technical and commercial—the traditional Boxing Day fixture continues to be the most anticipated of the annual football calendar.

The Boxing Day tradition in cricket precedes the one in football. It began in Australia when Victoria and New South Wales (NSW) met in a thrilling Sheffield Shield match at the MCG from 26 December 1856. The game itself was a timeless match, but resulted in the visitors, in this case NSW. winning by three wickets. It slowly grew into a tradition, and in 1865, turned into an annual fixture between the two states. SB Tang in the Guardian writes, “The 1892 Boxing Day Shield game lasted five days and attracted a total crowd of approximately 48,067 people which equates to 9,613 people per day. And healthy Boxing Day Shield crowds were not some 19th century, pre-Federation phenomenon. They continued well into the 1960s and ’70s with a total of 28,693 people attending the four-day 1969 Boxing Day Shield game at the MCG. That’s an average of 7,173 people per day." After the Boxing Day Test at the MCG came into being in the 1950-51 season, the game was shifted to the Junction Oval in St. Kilda, Melbourne. The last Boxing Day shield game at the MCG between Victoria and NSW took place in 1977.

While its cricketing roots trace back to Shield Cricket, it was in Test cricket that Boxing Day became a truly global phenomenon. In 1950-51, when England were visitors for the traditional Ashes contest, the second test match in Melbourne was played between 22nd and 27th December, Boxing Day fell on the third day of the test since Christmas eve and Christmas were declared rest days, a concept which is not prevalent today. According to MCG’s official attendance numbers, there was a crowd of 60,486 people on Boxing Day. The Test itself had an indifferent, if not intermittent start, initially with a gap of a year (the next Test was in 1952-53 vs South Africa). It later returned in 1968-69, when the West Indians, led by Sir Gary Sobers were the visitors. There were no Boxing Day matches between 1968 and the Ashes Test in 1974 and again between 1975 and 1980, when Australia hosted New Zealand. However, since 1980, it has become a traditional fixture in the Australian calendar, bar 1989 when Australia and Sri Lanka played out a one-day international.

India played its first ever Boxing Day test in 1985, when its batsmen put up an impressive batting display, piling up 445 runs in reply to Australia’s 262. The match ended in a draw. India have played a Boxing Day test at the MCG in each of their subsequent five tours—1991, 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011, with each of those matches resulting in a defeat.

Besides Australia, Boxing Day Tests have emerged as a tradition in other cricketing countries too. While not officially classified as a ‘Boxing Day’ fixture, South Africa played hosts to England in a 1913 test match at Johannesburg. After its readmission into the cricketing fold, South Africa hosted India in 1992 for a Boxing Day test at Port Elizabeth—one of the two venues it has used for this fixture, the other being Kingsmead, Durban. New Zealand too hosted Boxing Day Tests in Wellington in the late 1990s, the first of which, in 1998, came against India.

India’s performances in the Boxing Day tests (across the three countries) are forgettable to say the least. Besides the five Tests in Melbourne, where four of resulted in defeat, India has struggled in South Africa, managing a solitary, though memorable win in 2010—the only Boxing Day test it has ever won so far.

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