Cricket was once a Christmas Day staple for more than 40 years, including two Tests

Playing cricket on December 25 is a divisive topic but isn’t new. A man who debuted in a Christmas Test, eating his Christmas dinner alongside icons, speaks with SHANNON GILL.

The NBL hailed it an ‘Australian professional sporting first’, while Adam Zampa shouted down the idea of ​​the BBL following basketball’s lead.

Sport on Christmas Day is a hot topic right now but as former Australian Test cricketer Paul Sheahan tells CODE Sports, it’s all been done before.

“I don’t think they’re right, my debut as an international cricketer was on Christmas Day,” Sheahan says.

“Modern people never look back,” he laughs.

The NBL’s use of ‘professional’ might be a cute way of erasing some cricket history but on two occasions in Australia, Test cricket has been played on Christmas Day.

The last was in 1967, when Australia played India in Adelaide. Sheahan wearing the baggy green for the first time.

The NBL is wrong, he says. It was a professional sport… just.

“You’d hardly call cricket in those days a professional sport but we did get a minor consideration,” Sheahan says; ironically, given that he would eventually retire from Test cricket at just 26 to pursue a more stable career in education.

Newspaper reporter Phil Wilkins could not have envisaged that 55 years later we’d still be having a debate about the appropriateness of sport on Christmas Day, drolly observing that, “Adelaide, a far less sanctimonious lady nowadays, lifted her skirts and permitted cricket on Christmas Day and the small crowd left grateful.”

The match itself was played under a national cloud: it was just a week after the disappearance and presumed drowning of Prime Minister Harold Holt. Starting on December 23, Australia batted first, with Sheahan at No. 3 making a promising start to his Test career by scoring 81.

“I cursed the umpire, the late Col Egar, and always have. He gave me out lbw and I say there’s now way it was out,” he says.

There was a further quirkiness that seems completely anachronistic these days. Rest days were still de rigueur in Australia on Sundays, so the players rested on Christmas Eve Sunday before saddling up to play on day two: Christmas Day.

“It was so exciting, I couldn’t have cared less whether I had Christmas lunch with mum and dad and my brothers and sisters,” Sheahan says.

“This was the thrill of a lifetime and an opportunity of a lifetime. It brought me possibilities outside of cricket that I couldn’t have dreamed of.”

Apart from the rest day peculiarity, Sheahan remembers the playing conditions being identical on Christmas Day.

“It was absolutely as the cricket fixture usually suggested: 11 o’clock start because we didn’t have to worry about TV news.”

Only 2609 attended but as Wilkins reported: “ … It was a very Merry Christmas for cricket lovers.”

Post-play, the Australian team had a Christmas dinner which Sheahan admits, as a 21 year-old rookie, he found vastly more compelling than another Christmas at home.

“The attraction of playing cricket with the likes of Bobby Simpson, Bill Lawry, Graham McKenzie, Ashley Mattlet, Ian Redpath and Ian Chappell was just fantastic.”

While Sheahan had no qualifications at the time, he can understand why people have misgivings about Christmas cricket.

“Thinking about it now as a slightly more mature person than I was as a 21 year-old, I wouldn’t necessarily want to upset the big fella upstairs just in case,” he says.

“I might take a slightly different view of playing Christmas Day.”

The same thing had occurred in the 1951 Test against the West Indies in Adelaide, the last day attracting 6722 spectators on December 25.

Wilkins may have closed Adelaide in his report but for a place known as the ‘City of Churches’, the religious holiday never stopped play.

From 1926, a regular South Australia versus Queensland Sheffield Shield fixture included play on Christmas Day.

According to cricket historian Ray Webster, play would start later in the afternoon for Shield matches on the 25th, allowing for a Christmas lunch pre-play.

Fellow historian Bernard Whimpress says that Queensland players got used to spending Christmas Day in Adelaide.

“We worked it out that (Queenslander) ‘Slasher’ Mackay spent something like 15 Christmases in Adelaide. He used to be a guest of either Les Favell or Neil Dansie each year after play,” Whimpress tells CODE Sports.

He says many Adelaide cricket fans in the period planned their Christmas celebrations around the match.

“I’ve looked at the crowd figures over the years and it was often the biggest Shield attendance day of the summer.”

That first fixture in 1926 included a remarkable 152 runs between lunch and tea on Christmas Day by South Australian opener Arthur Richardson.

Newspapers reported: “When Arthur Richardson began an exhibition of his old time hitting power in the match between South Australia and Queensland on Adelaide Oval on Christmas Day, there were visions of a record score being raised.”

Richardson would amass a Christmas gift of 232 for the bumper crowd of 13,000.

It was such a traditional part of the summer schedule that when the 1967 Test was played in Adelaide, the regular Shield fixture was simply moved to Brisbane, with the final day’s play on December 25.

Christmas Day 1969 was when it all finished, the last time that both State cricket and the Australian team played on Christmas Day. South Australia hosted Queensland, while in India, Ashley Mallett took five wickets in Chennai as Australian bundled out India for 163.

While different overseas (India and Bangladesh played a day of their recent Test on Christmas Day just passed), since 1969 the day has been barren of cricket for Australia, despite the season being at the high point of public interest during the period.

Basketball jumped into the void this year. The Sydney Kings versus Melbourne United Christmas Day game attracted more than 9000 fans in the stadium and an estimated 300,000 television viewers.

It was hailed as a major hit by the NBL.

“The initial numbers are incredibly positive and give us confidence that Christmas games will become an NBL tradition,” NBL executive director and owner Larry Kestelman said.

Rest assured it will be part of the fixture going forward. Kestelman even flagged a double-header for next Christmas.

So, will the BBL follow suit?

Melbourne Stars skipper Adam Zampa quickly argued against the concept.

“Our schedules are hectic enough as is, particularly for the Stars,” Zampa said

“Obviously the Boxing Day Test is on, so we’re not in Melbourne, we’re away quite a bit this time of year. To add in a Christmas Day game would be out of the question.”

Cricket Australia CEO Nick Hockley said that while gaining support from BBL players would be crucial, the governing body would study the NBL example.

“It’s a really good case study,” Hockley told SEN Radio.

“I think it’s something we’ll certainly talk about. For me, it would have been nice to turn on the TV and watch a bit of T20 cricket. It would be a great way to spend Christmas night.”

If a BBL game is scheduled on December 25 in the coming years, perhaps there could be a nod to cricket’s Christmas history.

The Adelaide Strikers hosting, with a player of the match medal named for Arthur Richardson after his own Big Bash on Christmas Day almost 100 years ago, would seem appropriate.

Shannon Gill

Shannon GillContent producer

Shannon Gill is a Melbourne sportswriter with a focus on AFL, cricket and basketball. Previously working inside some of Australia’s biggest sporting organisations, he has been a freelance writer for a decade and is co-host of the cult sports history podcast ‘The Greatest Season That Was’. Pixies and TISM fans.

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