The third day of the second Domain Series Test between Australia and New Zealand looms with symbolism and significance for more than the Black Caps’ under-pressure batting line-up.
Watching from a corporate hospitality suite within the Melbourne Cricket Ground’s Ponsford Stand on Saturday will be rival members of the trans-Tasman teams that contested an equally attritional but ultimately benign draw during the fractious summer of 1980-81.
Among those renewing friendships and embellishing war stories will be NZ’s most famous bowler Sir Richard Hadlee, arguably Australia’s most elegant modern batter Greg Chappell, and a host of immediately recognisable names from an era when NZ’s uniforms were beige but the characters anything but.
They include the Kiwis’ doughty opening pair John Wright and Bruce Edgar, Australia pace pair Geoff Lawson and Rodney Hogg, and other redoubtable figures of their time including Lance Cairns, Doug Walters, Ewen Chatfield, Kim Hughes, Brian McKechnie and Jim Higgs.
That series is most often remembered for the ODI campaign that followed the Tests, and the underarm delivery to McKechnie that strained relations between the neighbours, but it also helped to etch Boxing Day as the most emblematic on the nation’s men’s Test cricket calendar.
Until Boxing Day 1980 – which carried echoes of the current contest in that NZ’s then skipper Geoff Howarth sent his more-fancied foes into bat on a sluggish deck after winning the toss – Test cricket scheduled in the immediate aftermath of Christmas was something of a rarity in Australia.
The West Indies had featured on what is now the Australia summer’s marquee occasion in 1968 and again six years later, and the first Boxing Day Ashes Test was staged in 1974 (although it wasn’t repeated until 1982).
But with the term ‘first mover advantage’ still decades from popular usage, the Kiwis were invited back for just one more Boxing Day Test (in 1987) throughout the intervening four decades as the event established itself as one of global cricket’s pre-eminent drawcards.
On the strength of record non-Ashes crowds on day one (80,473) and two (59,676) of their first Boxing Day Test outing in 32 years, Cricket Australia Chief Executive Kevin Roberts confirmed today the Black Caps would be invited back with far greater regularity in the future.
“We really value the partnership with New Zealand,” Roberts said prior to day two, which ended with NZ 2-44 in reply to Australia’s first innings 467.
“We are already having some high-level discussions around the cricket calendar from 2023 to 2031 and we absolutely hope and look forward to hosting New Zealand at a Boxing Day Test well before another 32 years pass.
“They are a really important partner and nation in the world of cricket.”
However, there is far more to compiling an international cricket schedule than firing off a ‘save the date’ missive to prospective opponents and noting it’s a recurring engagement for every four years or so.
As anyone who has tried to piece together the interlocking components of Test, ODI, T20, international, domestic and global tournament matches will attest, it’s rather like attempting to furnish a four-bedroom house solely from flat-packs, without the without the benefit of an allen key.
Or access to quantum computing.
However, even allowing for the complexities of compiling a spreadsheet that takes into account myriad competing factors and honours requests from the International Cricket Council (such as the primacy of the new World Test Championship and proposed ODI league competition) Roberts has backed the sanctity of the Boxing Day Test match.
To the extent he noted today that, in an ideal world, the Melbourne Cricket Ground would continue hosting the annual post-Christmas Test which would represent a step beyond the venue being assured at least one Test match every Australia summer, as is currently the case.
“The MCG Test is one of the two most iconic Tests on the planet, along with the Lord’s Test,” Roberts said at the ground today.
“That indicates the importance of it, not just in Victoria but in communities beyond Australia.
“Given the importance of the MCG Test to world cricket, I would like to think it will remain here in perpetuity.
“There is a bit of work to be done on that front, but you would have to say it is best for world cricket to have a Boxing Day Test in Melbourne for years to come.”
Much of that “work” relates to the venue-hire agreement with the Victoria State Government and the Melbourne Cricket Club, with the current agreement expiring at the end of this summer after it was rolled-over for a single year in 2018.
While neither CA nor the MCC publicly expect any complication to securing a new agreement, there are variations to terms that will need to be met to ensure all parties are satisfied.
Bringing greater complexity to ongoing scheduling is the pressure applied from the ICC to meet the demands of its existing future tours program (which extends until the first quarter 2023) as well as bilateral agreements with individual cricket boards around the world.
The fact that nations such as New Zealand and South Africa – both of whom have shown to be Boxing Day drawcards in Australia – host their own seasons at the same time as Australia adds an additional layer of challenge.
South Africa last took part in a Boxing Day Test in Melbourne in 2005, and then voiced their dissatisfaction with the lack of reciprocity from a previous CA administration which had stipulated Australia’s men’s team would not play Tests away from home over Christmas-New Year.
The Proteas, who under the FTP are due to return to Australia in late 2022 and have previously signalled their preparedness to once again play on Boxing Day at the MCG, are currently involved in their own Boxing Day Test against England at Centurion.
That ground has become the preferred venue for South Africa’s Boxing Day match after Cricket South Africa staged previous post-Christmas games at Port Elizabeth and Durban, with modest success.
New Zealand have also begun a tradition of Boxing Day Tests at Christchurch’s Hagley Oval but have struggled to lure box-office attractions with recent fixtures against Test-cricket strugglers Sri Lanka, West Indies and Bangladesh.
And even though Australia’s men’s team are taking the unprecedented step of heading away on an overseas campaign (three ODIs in India) during the middle of next month, there seems little likelihood of that move being replicated during the traditional marquee Christmas-New Year holiday period.
As the global cricket schedule becomes more and more cluttered, and home boards look increasingly to domestic T20 franchise competitions to buttress their finances and audiences, the pressure on administrators to find workable solutions will only heighten.
One of the potential panaceas floated by the ICC is the possibility of reducing Test matches to four days, specifically in the cases of rising Test nations such as Afghanistan and Ireland.
But while CA has flagged its intention to look at the concept of four-day Test matches with a proposed maiden match with Afghanistan next year a possibility for the reduced timeslot, Roberts noted it was still too early to be having those discussions.
“We haven’t got that far yet,” he said.
“We’re obviously in the middle of an exciting Test series against New Zealand that is part of the (ICC’s) World Test Championship.
“Once this international season finishes, that’s when we start the planning for the following season.
“And we will go into that with an open mind about how we can support the growth of cricket in Afghanistan, and the best way to help their tour to Australia contribute to Australian cricket as well.
“I think as we explore possibilities in the next cycle from 2023 to 2031, it’s very important we ask ourselves the right questions about cricket.
“We know having surveyed around 8,000 Australian fans a couple of years ago, the two main things they wanted from us were an expanded BBL and more innovation in Test cricket in the form of four-day Tests and day-night Tests.
“It’s been great to have a couple of day-night Tests this year, and we’ve got to look really seriously at the future of four-day Test cricket.
“And given the average length of Test matches are less than four days, then it’s something to consider really seriously in the next eight-year cycle from 2023.”
Domain Test Series v New Zealand
Australia squad: David Warner, Joe Burns, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Matthew Wade, Travis Head, Tim Paine (c, wk), Pat Cummins, Mitch Starc, Nathan Lyon, James Pattinson, Michael Neser, Mitch Swepson
New Zealand: Todd Astle, Tom Blundell, Trent Boult, Colin de Grandhomme, Matt Henry, Kyle Jamieson, Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls, Jeet Raval, Mitchell Santner, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor, BJ Watling, Neil Wagner, Kane Williamson (c)
First Test: Australia won by 296 runs in Perth
Second Test: December 26-30, MCG (Seven, Fox & Kayo)
Third Test: January 3-7, SCG (Seven, Fox & Kayo)
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