Sporting Bygones: How the MCG's Christmas Test started its tradition for exciting cricket and Australian success

THE Test match that got under way in Melbourne yesterday continued one of cricket's most famous traditions. The Boxing Day Test is synonymous with Christmas and a popular feature of the Australian calendar.

But although Melbourne is Test cricket's oldest venue, having staged the first match between Australia and England in 1877, it may surprise you to learn the ground's Boxing Day tradition is just 30 years old.

Only since 1980 have Tests annually begun in the town on December 26, with 1984 (a December 22 start), 1988 (a Christmas Eve start), 1989 (no Test) and 1994 (a Christmas Eve start) the exceptions.

Prior to 1980, just three of the MCG's 70 Tests started on Boxing Day – those of 1968, 1974 and 1975.

The 1950 Ashes Test and the 1952 fixture between Australia and South Africa were the only other Melbourne Tests to have included play on December 26.

Before then, the only games to take place at the venue on Boxing Day were Sheffield Shield affairs.

These were most notably between the home state Victoria and New South Wales.

Boxing Day Tests have certainly proved highly successful for the Baggy Greens. Australia have won 17 of the 29 encounters, drawing seven and losing only five.

Three of those defeats came against England – two of which rank as all-time classics.

In 1982, England won an incredible match by three runs and, in 1998, prevailed by 12 runs.

Their other Boxing Day Test triumph – by an innings and 14 runs in 1986 – sealed their last series victory Down Under.

The 1982 contest will live long in the memories of all who saw it.

England batted first and scored 284, Chris Tavare making 89, Allan Lamb 83, and Rodney Hogg and Bruce Yardley each taking four wickets.

Australia replied with 287 to gain a first innings lead of three, before England followed up with 294, Graeme Fowler top-scoring with 65.

Chasing 292, Australia's turkey looked cooked when they slipped to 218-9 in the face of a six-wicket burst from Norman Cowans.

But Allan Border and Jeff Thomson embarked on an epic last-wicket stand, lifting the total to 255-9 by the end of day four to leave Australia wanting just 37 more runs to regain the Ashes.

On the fifth morning before an 18,000 crowd admitted free of charge, they whittled the target down to four before Thomson edged a delivery from Ian Botham towards Tavare at second slip.

It wasn't a difficult chance, but Tavare could only parry it and was hugely relieved to see Geoff Miller, fielding deeper at first slip, claim the ball inches off the turf to spark unbridled scenes of English jubilation.

"No-one who played in the game or watched it, or who saw it on television, or who listened to it on the radio, many of them from halfway across the world, could have been left unmoved," declared Wisden.

"In terms of runs, the only closer Test match ever played was the Brisbane tie between Australia and West Indies in 1960-61.

"In 1902, at Old Trafford, the margin between England and Australia was also 3 runs, on that occasion in Australia's favour."

Since 1982, there has been an ever tighter Ashes finish (England's two-run win at Edgbaston in 2005), Test cricket's second tie (between Australia and India at Chennai in 1986), and the smallest margin of victory by a runs margin in a Test match (West Indies beating Australia by one run at Adelaide in 1993). But few games have rivalled the 1982 encounter for nerve-shredding tension.

The 1998 Melbourne Test was particularly memorable for the heroics of Darren Gough, Dean Headley and Alec Stewart.

The latter made 107 of England's first innings 270 before Australia replied with 340, former Yorkshire pace bowler Gough leading the way with 5-96.

After England struck 244 in their second innings, Australia were cruising on 103-2 in pursuit of 175 for victory.

"But a remarkable piece of fielding from Ramprakash," noted Wisden, "who plucked a scorching pull from Langer out of the air, lifted England's spirits.

"Headley forced Mark Waugh to edge to second slip, then followed up brilliantly in a mini-spell of four for four in 13 balls."

Headley finished with 6-60 – his Test best – and Gough claimed the last two wickets to clinch a dramatic victory.

Since then, England have lost two successive Ashes Tests at Melbourne, where Australia have been nigh-on unbeatable in recent years.

They had won 10 of their last 11 Tests at the ground going into yesterday's game – the only blot on their copybook a nine-wicket defeat to South Africa two years ago.

Other notable Boxing Day Tests at the MCG include the 2006 Ashes match when Shane Warne took his 700th Test wicket, the 1995 game between Australia and Sri Lanka when umpire Darrell Hair called Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing, and the 1974 Ashes contest which also produced a breathtaking finale.

Australia ended eight shy of victory with only two wickets standing - the fourth-closest draw in terms of runs required in Test history.