In a young, vibrant democracy, tradition can be a vexed concept.
The culture warriors are circling their wagons around January 26 as Australia Day and draping themselves in the flag, even though it was almost ignored until the bicentennial year of 1988.
The public holiday associated with our national day was generally allocated to the Monday nearest the actual date, and my youthful memories were of it being observed with vastly less solemnity than Anzac Day.
Sadly, I am old enough to be bemused by reference to the “traditional” Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
It is a tradition of recent advent honoured in the breach as recently as 1994. In that year, the second Test between Australia and England began on Christmas Eve with a rest day taken on Christmas Day, which that year fell on a Sunday.
The Packer factor
Rest days, like many other trappings of traditional cricket, have succumbed to commercial pressures and the insatiable demands of the television audience. In that match Australia were led by Mark Taylor and England by Mike Atherton, both of whom are commentating on this year’s “traditional” clash.
That the traditional tag rings somewhat hollow is not a criticism of the immense cultural significance this match has assumed, especially in the years since the Packer revolution galvanised the Australian population into support for the national team through catchy jingles and overt appeals to nationalism.
However, before Kerry Packer transformed Australian cricket, Australian teams were frequently on tour during our summers. When Australia were on tours, as they were in 1966-67 and 1969-70, the marquee fixtures on Boxing Day were Sheffield Shield matches between arch rivals News South Wales and Victoria.
When Ray Illingworth’s men wrested the Ashes from Australia in 1970-71, the “traditional” Boxing Day Test was scheduled to commence on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1970. Ultimately, the match was abandoned on the third day without a ball being bowled.
To offer the fans some entertainment, the first One Day International was played between Australia and England on January 5, 1971. By today’s standards it was a quaint affair, with the traditional red ball employed and Geoffrey Boycott scoring 8 off 37 deliveries.
No-one who played that day would have aroused the interest of a Big Bash League franchise on the basis of bustling strike rates.
Australia overtook England’s modest 190 for the loss of five wickets in 34.6 overs. None of those involved could have imagined how the shorter form of the game would evolve and threaten the relevance of traditional cricket.
Christmas carols at the cricket
But over the past three decades, the Boxing Day Test has captured the imagination of the entire nation.
The atmosphere inside the cavernous arena is electric on the opening morning, even when a modest opponent is engaged.
As Greg Baum of Fairfax astutely noted, there is no such thing as a “dead rubber” on Boxing Day.
Test cricket always appears in rude good health amid a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground.
And the democratic temper of Australia is also vividly displayed.
As the long lines of fans snaked their way towards the entry gates, through the bag searches, and body scans they were in good humour. In the adjacent line, I saw the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tony Smith, attired in a business suit.
With the pervasive threat of terrorism, such searches are likely to become a bleakly “traditional” ritual of the game over time.
An unmistakably Australian affair
Mr Smith and I exchanged knowing smiles as the queue moved towards the shade. His writ did not run to being ushered past the sombrero-wearing lads, who hopefully had already elected their designated driver to take them home. They had clearly indulged in a hearty liquid breakfast.
If they are ultimately ejected today, he will not have to perform the honours.
Australia won the toss and elected to bat. The ground is bathed in brilliant sunshine under a cloudless azure sky.
The conditions, the crowd and the atmosphere are unmistakably Australian. Long may this fixture, which has become an institution, albeit relatively recently, unite the nation in our languid holiday celebration.
And let us hope it remains a five-day fixture. That tradition is increasingly under threat from avaricious administrators.
Yet every Test of this series, and last year’s against Pakistan, required the fifth day to achieve an Australian victory.