When I was growing up in England, cricket had a much greater presence in the consciousness of the general public. As I recall, football and cricket were held in relatively equal thrall and were largely confined to their seasons of summer and winter, only overlapping for a few weeks at either end. Indeed, some players even played both games – Ian Botham included.
Since then, the behemoth that is football has sucked up nearly all the media attention in England such that, outside of the Ashes and the world cup, cricket has become very much the poor relation in the nation’s sporting line-up.
So it was with interest and trepidation (for I don’t really understand the rules fully) that I took my boys to join a group of friends for day two of the Boxing Day Test between Australia and India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
I have to say that when it comes to test cricket, I have tended to lean towards the American view of the game – “You can play for five days and still end up with a draw?” – but that is to belie the intrinsic civilised beauty of cricket; that it has its roots in an era when a five-day pastime was perfectly acceptable. In a world of extended working days and instant availability, the notion of a game that pauses for morning and afternoon tea, as well as lunch, is to be cherished rather than mocked.
If cricket is Australia’s religion, then the Boxing Day Test is its midnight mass. Families talk about coming year after year, of serving their 15-20 year wait to become members of the MCG, and of how the test is as much a part of an Aussie Christmas as prawns and presents.
Outside, there was a tented village of child-friendly entertainment where kids could practice bowling, try a diving catch before landing on an inflatable mat, have their photo taken with the cricket world cup, get free sunglasses and soft cricket balls, and sign up for more information from local teams the Melbourne Renegade and the Melbourne Stars.
Inside, we were lucky in that we chose to attend with friends with a passion for the game, and on the day when Steve Smith posted a cracking innings of 192, barrelling Australia along to an innings total of 530. This was enough to keep my cricketing new initiates interested, as was the spectacular setting of the MCG itself.
It caused me to ponder what has been lost in England, where the swifter gratification of football has subsumed, usurped and marginalised its more genteel cousin. If that hadn’t happened, what would its place now be in the consciousness of the nation and its children – other than ‘that blip’ when there is no football.
Perhaps the fact that cricket in Australia is so closely tied to the traditions of Christmas has helped its position, or perhaps Aussies just love the game more and more widely than has been the case in England for the past 30 years.
Either way, my boys loved it and have been playing garden cricket ever since. It seems ironic to me that, had they grown up in England, they would probably never have learnt to play what I consider to be this most English of games.
As for the match, well, you can probably guess what happened. They played for five days and ended up with a draw.