Does English cricket need its own Boxing Day Test?
70,000 cricket fans went to the first day of last week’s Melbourne Test. Another 120,000 attended the next three days. 2.6 million viewers caught the first day’s play on television, accounting for two-thirds of the television viewing audience in Australia’s metropolitan areas on Boxing Day. The post-Christmas match-up, held in the country’s largest cricket venue, is established as the pillar of the Australian cricket season.
The English domestic season has the shape of a cushion that has been sat on by many different backsides.
There is no equivalent to the Boxing Day Test. The Lord’s test sounds so definitive, and has the sense of a homecoming. But for the last 20 years the ground has hosted two test matches and they have shuttled across May, June, July and August. The county one-day knock-out final comes late in the season, but doesn’t have a place in the neutrals’ heart and calendar. Twenty20 finals day has tried out a few locations and dates and perhaps will settle to become a focus of of the domestic season.
The nostalgia paragraph. Growing up, the overall season had a shape, as well as a weekly pattern. One-day international series at the start of the summer, alongside B&H zonal county competition… Tests underway midsummer, with England traditionally losing the series by July, around the time of the B&H final… Gillette/Natwest final following the Oval test, with the touring team announced on its back… Tests began on Thursday, finishing on Tuesday… County knockout matches on Wednesday. County championship matches beginning on Saturdays and Wednesdays… The Sunday league being faithful to its name.
For the cricket follower, the price of knowing where you were in the week and the season, appears to have been mediocrity at Test and first-class level, studded with the odd outstanding performer: Botham, Gower, Gooch in the former; Richards (x2), Zaheer, Proctor, etc in the latter.
Maybe having our own Boxing Day test would give some definition to the season: a fixed point around which to rally public interest. Test match ticket sales remain robust so it wouldn’t have to be a Test match. The late May and August Bank Holidays could be anchor points. In May, three ODIs held across the Thursday, Saturday and Monday of the long weekend. In August, the Oval Test running from the Friday or Saturday of the Bank Holiday; or the twenty20 finals day and the one day final played on the Saturday and Monday. Events like the big screen in the park parties run alongside the last Ashes series could share the experience wider than the match-day ticket-holders.
The English domestic cricket season, unsure how much to trust and invest in twenty20, feels like a work in progress. I usually run a mile from manufactured traditions. However, the Boxing Day Test, highly popular and part of the infrastructure of Australian cricket, only became an annual fixture in the 1990s. So maybe a conscious effort to big-up a weekend of cricket and stick with it, could help the process of a rational timetable cohering around it, as well as giving the sport a weekend of prominence.
Perhaps the most critical step would be for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to place this fixture in the list of Group A sporting events that have to be made availabe to channels that broadcast for free and have coverage of 95% of the population. Then we may be getting somewhere. To return to my earlier, soft-furnishing metaphor for the season, we could find ourselves with a jewel fit to sit atop a velvet cushion.