November 19 2010
If you are a passionate cricket lover, or just enjoy the theatre of any great sporting occasion in a dynamic city, there are few experiences to compare with Christmas down under during an Ashes battle between England and Australia. The 2010/11 series gets under way in Brisbane on Thursday and continues in Adelaide and Perth. But the highlight is the annual Boxing Day Test Match in Melbourne, which runs from December 26 to 30.
The Melbourne Cricket Ground (or MCG) is an awe-inspiring 100,000-seater stadium close to the city centre, and hundreds of English fans will be travelling out to enjoy the fun this winter. But they will still be heavily outnumbered by the locals – all of them replete with Christmas cheer, and with chilled beers, wines and Aussie champagne to hand as they anticipate the old colonial enemy getting a right royal Christmas stuffing.
For an English cricketer, facing the “Baggy Greens” in Melbourne’s daunting arena is the biggest challenge. Indeed, the players might like to remember the words of the Antipodean Russell Crowe as Maximus in the film Gladiator: “Whatever comes out of these gates, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together.”
But before the demands of Boxing Day, the Poms must first negotiate Christmas Day itself, striking the right balance between festivity and restraint. Until 20 years ago, England tours were mostly male affairs and some players – not used to overseas travel – became homesick over yuletide. So the social committee came up with some ideas to encourage bonding and team spirit. At their bounteous Christmas lunch – the full monty of toast turkey, Brussels sprouts, gravy and Christmas pudding, despite the 35°C heat outside – it was decided that everyone should come in fancy dress. They would be given a character or theme about a week beforehand and would all descend on a dress-hire store in Melbourne to get kitted out. A motley crew of pirates, sheikhs, horned devils and former captain Mike Gatting as King Henry VIII would then turn up at Melbourne’s solidly old-fashioned Windsor hotel. The Australian press loved it. “Heard the one about the Poms and their fancy-dress lunch?”, they’d say. “This year they’re going to come as test cricketers.”
The fancy-dress tradition died out about 10 years ago. Modern tours are huge, family-oriented expeditions – and probably none the worse for that – but veterans feel that some of the old camaraderie has been lost. On the ill-fated 2006/7 trip, more than 90 people sat down to lunch at the swanky Langham Hotel, and roast turkey was mostly jettisoned in favour of a lavish seafood buffet.
But not all the players attended, including star batsman Kevin Pietersen, who – along with current captain Andrew Strauss – chose to go elsewhere. Maybe that absence of festive unity undermined England’s preparations. Or perhaps they were just understandably nervous at the thought of facing Shane Warne – who, along with the rest of the Aussie team, was enjoying his own Christmas lunch in a nearby Melbourne casino – the following day. Either way, the “convicts” proceeded to win the 2006 Boxing Day Test by an innings and 99 runs.
As a punter with a financial interest in England retaining the Ashes, I wish they’d get the dressing-up box out again. But however they choose to celebrate, I’m hopeful that the irrepressible off-spinner Graeme Swann will be the series’ leading wicket taker at 7-2 with Sportingbet.