January 24, 2017

The Christmas Day Test everyone forgot

For decades, Adelaide had a tradition of cricket matches on Christmas Day, including a Test in 1967 that many of the participants appear to have no memory of

The Adelaide Test of December 1982. Between 1926 and 1969, the ground hosted cricket on Christmas Day on 29 occasions © Getty Images

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.

"I've got no memory of [playing in the 1967 Adelaide Test] whatsoever, and I'm normally good at these sorts of things! I probably failed, did I?"
Bob Simpson, who was Australia's captain in the match, and scored 55 and 103

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.

"That's amazing!" Bob Simpson was incredulous when told that his Australian team played on Christmas Day in the 1967 Adelaide Test © PA Photos

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 Sheahan had 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."

"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!
Barry Jarman remembers Christmas Day Sheffield Shield meals

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."

Paul Sheahan, second from right, had good reason to remember the "Christmas Test" of 1967, for it was his debut. "I think we were probably delightfully secular in those days" © Fairfax Media via Getty Images

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.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Pelham on January 27, 2017, 8:36 GMT

    Small correction to my comment on January 26, 2017, 21:09 GMT: I should have said 1975 not 1976 for the third year in which a Melbourne Test started on Boxing Day.

  • Pelham on January 26, 2017, 21:09 GMT

    Trimzi on January 26, 2017, 14:43 GMT : According to my records, the first year that a Test match at Melbourne started on Boxing Day was 1968, and the second was 1974, then 1976. However, Test matches have started at Melbourne on Boxing Day most years from 1980 onwards, including every year from 1990 to the present, except 1994 when the match started on Christmas Eve, and Boxing Day was the second day's play.

    As noted in one of my previous comments, the earlier tradition was to play the Sheffield Shield match Victoria v New South Wales at Melbourne around Christmas time.

  • Trimzi Syed on January 26, 2017, 14:43 GMT

    So it means that boxing day test match tradition was started much later

  •   Venkatesh Venkatesh on January 26, 2017, 11:43 GMT

    What so special on playing test cricket or any first cricket on Christmas day back home we play cricket on any day if it is festival or not it does not matter much to us , we celebrate match by winning the match in festival atmosphere that is true on this part of the world by all walks of people but now a days that gradually disappeared because of advent of Television and people are started loosing interest on longer version of the game and also so many test matches around world are over in three days as well as quality of selection of players but certainly every body understands cricket they love play cricket even it is mid night and some parts they play twenty fours cricket on festival days that is really enjoyable if it is tennis ball cricket or leather ball cricket. People love cricket any day any time and people understands that , this is beauty

  • Terry on January 25, 2017, 21:46 GMT

    It does seem odd but I think we have it right now. Christmas Day is a family day and Boxing Day is when the MCG Test starts. It seems a push from the Big Bash to play on the day and to me the only conceivable way it could happen would be if you had the two Melbourne teams or the two Sydney teams playing as I don't think it would be fair on the Queensland players to send them to Perth say. Even so not all the players for the Sydney teams say have their families in Sydney. Leave it alone and have another mince pie

  • Pelham on January 25, 2017, 21:35 GMT

    cricfan37015843 on January 24, 2017, 22:43 GMT: Thanks for pointing that one out. However, 1928 appears to be the only year in which play took place on Christmas Day in a first class match in Melbourne. There are quite a lot of occasions when the Victoria v New South Wales match had two rest days, one for Christmas Day and one for Sunday.

  • Ramaratnam on January 25, 2017, 15:57 GMT

    What is great about Christmas Day test? It is a holiday and it can attract more crowd. As simple as that. Test matches are played on festival days in India also. In 60s and 70s we used to have test matches only in Bombay, Madras, Delhi and Calcutta (names as used in those days) regularly. Every year the Madras test was scheduled to coincide with the Pongal festival and it attracted a full house crowd. We used to stand in the queue the whole of the previous night to get into the stadium on the test match day. If the test match began on a week day, the State Government used a declare a holiday on the first day of the test match. It was all fun. Gone are those days. It is a pathetic sight to see the empty stands these days.

  • Pelham on January 25, 2017, 14:34 GMT

    JohnYelton on January 24, 2017, 21:56 GMT: You need to be careful in interpreting the scorecard here. Although it is given in "stacked innings" format, you can see that the second innings bowling orders for both teams are the same as the first innings. That suggests that it has been taken from a "side by side" format, in which changes of bowling order for the second innings may well not have been recorded.

    The report in The Times (29 December, page 12) gives a scorecard for India's second innings credited to Reuter which lists Simpson as fifth bowler and Chappell as sixth.

  • Cricinfouser on January 25, 2017, 10:41 GMT

    My mother-in-law, an Austrian, for whom cricket was a pretty weird game, knew of Ian Chappell at about that time only as a 'leg-spin bowler'. Not as a batsman.

  • David on January 25, 2017, 10:17 GMT

    Yes Johnyelton, Chappell was regarded as a serious bowler in his early years. In fact, if you look at his first class record, it's not too bad - better than Adam Zampa, for example.

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