By Derek Pringle
Along with a big match at Lord’s, or a full house at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, an Ashes Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is one of the great spectacles of cricket.
Australia’s foremost sporting city, Melbourne likes nothing more than to leave the formal trappings of Christmas Day at home and head down the following morning to ‘The G,’ as it is locally abbreviated, for more festive drinking which, along with Pom-baiting, is one of Australia’s favourite pastimes during the festive season.
This year Santa has come early for the Aussies and the urn has already been secured. But while that will undeniably take the edge off the series, a massive crowd of between 85-100,000 is still expected to turn up on that first day.
I played in a Boxing Day Test 35 years ago and while the ground didn’t quite have the same capacity as now, the din made by 70-80,000 people, all baying for English blood, was disorientating and heightened the fight or flight reflex.
It was raucous, insulting and the most sonically assaulted I have ever felt on a cricket pitch apart from a one-day international at the same ground a few weeks later, when an even bigger crowd turned up to give us the what-for.
I also played in the World Cup final there in 1992, in front of about 90,000. But as Pakistan and not Australia were our opponents then, most of the crowd were uncertain who to cheer for so the din was not as hair-raising.
The personal nature of the abuse was trying and never funny. One favourite, not of mine but theirs, was: “The best thing about you Pringle is still running down your mother’s legs.” That and: “Who’s f***ing your missus while you’re over here you ugly ****?”
Fielding on the boundary was a lonely and dangerous experience back in 1982, especially if you were in front of the infamous Bay 13, now defunct due to modern Australia’s drive to become a paragon of political correctness.
Not only did the vast 90-yard boundaries keep you very far from the comforting company of your colleagues, but the denizens of Bay 13, mostly unsavoury biker sorts, would think nothing of lobbing a full can of beer at your head. If that kind of thing persisted today the ‘elf and safety brigade would make helmet-wearing compulsory for all boundary riders.
Ian ‘Gunner’ Gould, who came on as a sub fielder for us during that Test, and who brilliantly caught Greg Chappell off Norman Cowans during Australia’s second innings, felt the full force of Bay 13’s hospitality.
Sporting some blond streaks in his hair, after a few of us were persuaded by a local hairdresser to visit her salon, Gunner had a meat pie dumped on his head by a hairy Hell’s Angel as he went to pick up the ball from the boundary gutter, which was just inches from the crowd (no 15-yard buffer zones then).
It could have got ugly, had he reacted aggressively. But as he stood up, the gloop slowly sliding from his head, he said quick as a flash – “Steady on sunshine, I’ve only just had me Barnet done,” which disarmed the biker and won over the rest of the bay, or at least the few with a smattering of Cockney rhyming slang.
We’d come into that match 2-0 down and desperate for a win. Like Joe Root’s team, we’d just been handed a curfew which had not gone down well with the players, most of whom ignored it.
As touring teams did at that time of year, we’d had the traditional fancy dress Christmas lunch, the first part of which involved drinks with the press (another tradition now defunct). Yet, despite the merriment all thoughts were on us needing a win which, fortunately, we achieved by the narrow margin of three runs.
It was a nerve-wracking match on a pitch whose bounce could never be entirely trusted. Nobody made a hundred and the highest total was the 294 we made in our second innings. That left Australia needing 292 to win in two days.
Enter our fast bowler Norman ‘Flash’ Cowans, bowling quick and with a penchant for finding the grubber which we’d all been warned about at the MCG, but hadn’t really experienced in our two innings. Flash, who finished with 6-77, did find a couple, one of them trapping Rod Marsh plumb lbw, but it was enough to make Australia’s batsmen fear the worst.
After tea on the fourth afternoon they quickly lost four wickets for 42 to leave them on 218-9 and us on the brink of a great victory. Except that Allan Border, Australia’s best batsman, though one who’d had a modest series to that point, was still at the crease.
Not only that, but Ian Botham had loaned Border one of his Duncan Fearnley bats to use in a bid to change his fortunes – which seemed to happen just as we wanted him back in the hutch.
Slowly but surely, Border began to find some fluency and take control. Jeff Thomson, Australia’s last man with a Test average of 12, kept him company, stonewalling when necessary and also getting his partner on strike.
Bob Willis, England’s captain, was suffering with flu during that match, though his tactic of giving Border an easy single so we could bowl at Thomson, was not the tactic of a fevered mind. It was controversial though so when, by the close of day four, Border (unbeaten on 44) and Thomson (unbeaten on eight), had taken Australia to within 37 runs of victory, he’d acquired some critics.
On the final day admission was free and a huge crowd, no doubt sensing an unexpected home win, turned up. Willis persisted with his tactics of giving Border the single to get off strike but he and Thomson chipped away at the remaining runs until, with three needed, Willis tossed the ball to Botham.
Thomson was facing and having kept out 61 balls and made 21 runs, was clearly feeling confident he’d got the Poms where he wanted them. I was fielding at third man and can recall this wave of frustration beginning to build in me as it looked like Australia might pull off the improbable.
The crowing crowd didn’t help yet just as desolation was about to take hold, in runs Beefy for his first ball and delivers a long-hop, or at least, Thommo shaped to cut as if it was a long-hop.
What happened next seemed both quick and slow, as Thommo nicked to Chris Tavare at second slip. Tav must have felt the game had gone, too, as he seemed surprised the ball had come to him.
His instincts meant that while his hands were not right to catch the ball, he parried it gently over his head where Geoff Miller, fortunately alert to all eventualities at first slip, stopped to conquer by pouching the rebound.
Thommo was distraught but there was none of that touchy-feely hand on the shoulder consolation stuff from Beefy. Instead, he roared off towards the dressing-room (my direction) whooping like a dervish. I intercepted him just before the boundary boards and it was like being hit by a rhino.
The emotion, principally relief that we had at last won a Test, stirred synapses I didn’t know I had. Somewhat ungraciously, I flicked a double Vee to the Aussie supporters, which got me a b*****king from England’s management after it was caught on camera.
We’d all been provoked to breaking point that match and while my feeble response had made me feel better, it was nowhere near as satisfying as winning a Boxing Day Test at the MCG. A memory I’ll always treasure.