Like a preserved ritual, there are only two places to be on a Boxing Day in Melbourne – Flinders Street for season-ending sales or the MCG. Both spheres – separated by sparkling green parks and twinkling high-risers – come with a heightened sense of anticipation, drowning out the messy hangover of lengthy Christmas night frolic. The legendary Richie Benaud used to wonder how half of Melbourne turned up for the Boxing Day Test without any hung-over, binge-eating traces, in crisp cottons and then after his quintessential pause, resume: “Where else would you be on the Boxing Day than at the MCG?”
He made history sound longer and grander than it actually was – for it was not until 1950 that MCG hosted its first Boxing Day Test, and it was not until the thrilling encounter against the West Indies in 1975 that it became a ritual. But as with all rituals in history, the myth is imperceptibly entwined with reality, as something that’s been around seemingly forever, inescapable as the summertime air, when the sky is cloudless blue, the breeze is mild and cool, the sun is warm but not yet hot.
It’s the sounds that hit you first – the chatter, roar, pleasantries, banter, whistles and when India plays, the throbbing drums that reverberate as far as Flinders Street. The Indianisation of MCG is difficult to neglect. On the parklands, there are stalls serving Indian food and music, dance and delirium. In front of the stadium, a bunch of drummers are feverishly serving a cacophonous percussion, their music players belching out popular Punjabi chartbusters.
They had a lot to cheer on the opening day as fifties from debutant Mayank Agarwal and Cheteshwar Pujara and another unbeaten effort from skipper Virat Kohli ensured India were in the driver’s seat at 215/2 at stumps.
But the beauty of MCG is that nothing takes over nothing, modernity coexists peacefully with tradition, swankiness dwells with antiquity. It’s a great convergence of all types from all points in all dress codes, co-existing without disturbing each other, giving space to each other.
Nothing is more symbolic of the cultural, generational co-existence than the sight of stuttering grandparents taking their springy grandchildren with overlarge bats to watch Test matches. It’s how kids are initiated into Test cricket — a passage of rites and rituals, tradition and history. It becomes a fragment of their childhood, the fuel for Baggy Green dreams, and a ritual passed down generations. It’s, on a graver note, the reason Test cricket still survives, deified and considered inseparable from their hearts, even amidst fears of short-form cricket, like the Big Bash League, encroaching into the soul of the game, where you see the reverse of grandchildren dragging their grandparents. From sparking sunshine to blinking floodlights.
It’s the sheer multitude of humanity that strikes you next – so many people but so little chaos, so much scope for disorder but nothing remotely disorderly. Everything seems hurried, yet there’s no hurry. You see restless spectators patiently waiting to get their tickets scanned at the turnstiles, you also see them plunging to the green park benches, sipping beer and tucking pies. You wonder whether the arena will burst, yet find them merging seamlessly into the vast expanse of the arena.
It’s the faces that hit you next – the sheer assortment of expressions, the pounding patriotism when the anthems ring across the stadium, the meditative eyes suddenly twinkling with unbound excitement at anything closely excitable. It’s where even a wishful appeal is made to sound like an epic-drama, or even a routine stroke acquires grandness. It’s verbal serenading, and everything happens with an excess of drama, but so natural that it hardly jars.
It’s also where they rabidly voice their likes and dislikes. Mitchell Marsh was booed by the notorious Bay 13 crowd when he came on to bowl, for he had returned to Test cricket at the expense of local boy Peter Handscomb. And it doesn’t stop with one over, or a spell. It lasts the entire day.
The parallel action is in the bars. This is where Melbourne men dust up friendships, where old school friends meet every year for a catch-up 10 years, 20 years, 40 years down the line from different continents, where new friends are made and hatchets buried. It’s where the Boxing Day evening ends too, in drunkenness, like the night before.
The only deterrent was the pitch, which necessitated a cautious approach from both teams, punctuating long interludes of silence, and stoked rumours of the Boxing Day Test being shifted to other venues in the future. It’s something unthinkable for them, an insufferable void, for as Benaud would say: “Where else would you be on a Boxing Day than at the MCG?”