James Marsh picks out 10 notable Boxing Day performances at cricket’s greatest colosseum.
Being at the MCG on Boxing Day is to feel cricket slap you magnificently across the face with a jingle bell. A heaving edifice of concrete, machismo, lager of dubious quality and caterwauling, even the sturdiest attendee is left mildly tremulous when inside this most iconic of cricketing kernels on the most iconic of cricketing days. There have in fact been just 38 Boxing Day Test matches at the MCG (out of 106 matches there in total) – with the fixture being cemented within the annual schedule with unbroken regularity only since 1981. Here’s a list of 10, non-exhaustive, notable performances in those festive period games. Only eight of those 38 matches have finished as draws, hence perhaps the rather bowler heavy line-up:
1) Hugh Tayfield (South Africa)
6-84 & 7-81, 1952/53
Possibly the greatest tweaker to come out of the traditional spinner’s graveyard of South Africa, Tayfield’s off-breaks twice tore through the Australian line-up, ensnaring the prize wickets of Neil Harvey and Keith Miller in both innings as South Africa won a Test in Melbourne for the first time ever. Tayfield’s efforts remain the second best ever match figures for a South African in Test cricket, and the Durbanite ended the five-match series with 30 wickets at 28, nine ahead of his nearest rival on either side.
2) Graham Yallop (Australia)
268 vs Pakistan, 1983/84
Admittedly on a benign pitch which saw both sides pass 450 on first innings, hometown boy Yallop’s near 12-hour stint at the crease was still a considerable, debilitating feat against a Pakistan attack which included Sarfraz Nawaz – the originator of reverse swing – and the enigmatic wizardry of Abdul Qadir. The ex-Australia skipper was aided by the fact Imran Khan played only as a batsman in the match due to injury, but this knock remains the third highest ever in Tests at the MCG and the highest ever made in a Boxing Day match.
3) Viv Richards (West Indies)
Only three non-Australians have made Test double tons at the MCG, with the most recent being King Viv in 1984, treating mid-wicket in front of square as ever as his own personal majestic fiefdom. Man of the Match was actually Andrew Hilditch, who made a bruising, game-saving 113 against the vituperative triumvirate of Marshall, Garner and Walsh, but it was Richards, chewing gum with characteristic and helmetless insouciance, who owned the MCG that particular Christmas.
4) Richard Hadlee (New Zealand)
5-109 & 5-67, 1987/88
Hadlee had claimed his first Man of the Match award at the MCG in 1980, taking nine wickets in a drawn Test. Seven years later the hirsute yet impeccably groomed paceman went one better, taking the eighth (at the time a new world-record) of his staggering nine 10-wicket match hauls. It still wasn’t enough to force a win, however, with Australia’s last wicket pair of Craig McDermott and Mike Whitney holding on to seal the three-match series 1-0. The match also featured the MCG’s infamous Bay 13 giving an impassioned – though not for the easily offended – welcome to the anti-heroic Hadlee, the antipathy stemming from an incident in a tour match five years earlier.
5) Bruce Reid (Australia)
6-97 & 7-51, 1990/91
The wildly talented Reid endured a body which would subsequently make Shane Watson’s appear relatively sturdy, leading to him gaining just 27 Tests caps across seven years. He did take 113 wickets at 25 along the way and never more devastatingly than the 13 he picked up against England in 1990. Leading by 46 as they started their second innings, England folded as the left-armer glided in like a balletic giraffe to skittle Gooch’s side for 150. “He mesmerised them,” his pace partner and fellow scourge of England Terry Alderman said. “It was an amazing performance. He got 13 wickets but it could have been 18.” Australia cruised to an eight-wicket win and exactly a year later Reid returned to his favourite haunt to confirm his status as the mullet king of MCG festivities by decimating India.
6) Darrell Hair (Australia)
vs Muralitharan, 1995
As long-sleeved after long-sleeved errant off-spinner has been hauled off to have ICC electrodes attached to their elbows, one must wonder what Darrell Hair, the original flex pest, has made of it all. Nearly 20 years before the recent purge, Hair made one of the most contentious and inflammatory decisions in the history of umpiring, when he no-balled Murali seven times in three overs for chucking during the Boxing Day Test of 1995. The Sri Lankan went on to bowl 32 further overs from the end of second umpire Steve Dunne without being called, a fact which led to relations between the two officials becoming “ a little cool”. We can surmise relations between Hair and Murali remain substantially chillier.
7) Curtly Ambrose (West Indies)
5-55 & 4-17, 1996/97
Like Hadlee, Ambrose played three Tests at the MCG and won Man of the Match on two occasions, the second time in 1996 as the West Indies went 2-1 up in a series they eventually lost. With the match relatively evenly poised after the first innings, Ambrose added to his five wickets by initially removing Hayden and Langer for ducks and then returning to gobble up the tail as Australia could only muster a paltry 122, leaving the visitors chasing a target of 87 that they easily knocked off. It was just one of the several intoxicating jousts Ambrose had with Australia as the ongoing squabble for global Test supremacy between the two sides simmered.
8) Dean Headley (England)
Two down with three Tests gone, the Ashes were already, inevitably for the period, out of reach for Nasser Hussain’s men and when England set Australia just 175 to win it seemed as if the chance of even keeping the series alive was slight, despite the home side’s historical propensity for nerves in small fourth-innings chases. Slight switched to minimal with Australia cruising at 130-3 until Headley entered to take four wickets in 13 balls – aided by a wundercatch from Mark Ramprakash – to instigate an Australian collapse which ended with them 162 all out. Headley continued his good form in the final Test at Sydney, picking up eight wickets – and, to his mind, bowling better than at the MCG – but England lost and conceded the series 3-1.
9) Dale Steyn (South Africa)
5-87 & 5-67, 2008
In July this year Steyn took nine wickets in the match at Galle to grant his country a first ever Test win at that fortified venue. That display, in unhelpful (even given Steyn’s reverse-swing capabilities) conditions confirmed the quick as a genuine great, but six years earlier it had already been hinted at with his efforts over Christmas at the MCG. Pace, aggression, seam, late, wobbling conventional swing and control of reverse were all present as he ran through Australia to hand his side a nine-wicket win. At the Boxing Day Test, beware of quicks bearing god-given gifts.
10) Mitchell Johnson (Australia)
5-63 & 3-25, 2013/14
In the corresponding fixture in 2010, Australia were routed for 98 on their way to a massive innings-defeat, a match in which Kevin Pietersen delighted in the Barmy Army singing their notorious ditty about the inaccuracy of Johnson’s bowling. Three years and a moustache later, the left-arm pacer squabbled with then cleaned up Pietersen in the first innings en route to Australia going 4-0 up in the series. Johnson finished with 8-88 in the match – witnessed by a record 271,865 spectators – and enough schadenfreude to last a lifetime.
Follow James Marsh @pavilionopinion