Or any other major Australian cricketing venue for that matter?
The idea that this Test might move probably seemed ludicrous and certainly not on Cricket Australia’s radar a fortnight ago. But 39 overs of bowling on an MCG pitch later deemed too dangerous to play on has resulted in this idea being floated by Mike McKenna, the head of operations at Optus Stadium in Perth.
At first glance, the idea seems at best hopeful and at worst opportunistic, given the issues the MCG has to sort in in a little over two weeks.
Many would argue that we always had a Test on Boxing Day, it’s traditional and has always been held on the 26th of December.
The reality is, in the 102 years from the time the first Test was played in 1877 until 1979, there were exactly five Boxing Day Tests. These included Tests that actually started well before Boxing Day but had a rest day on Christmas Day and included Boxing Day as a playing day.
That means this tradition is only 39 years old, which for many of us, is not that long.
Fans of the MCG will rightly point out it can house over 100,000 people and holds records for the highest recorded crowd at a cricket match (93,013 at the 2015 ODI World Cup final) and the single-day Test record crowd (91,112 for the 2013 Ashes Test). Other venues don’t have close to this capacity, but equally, it’s been a while since Melbourne has had more than 60,000 into a day’s play on any other day but Boxing Day.
It’s the sort of ground where even 30,000 people can seem like only a handful of spectators, which hardly makes for a great atmosphere. Perth, on the other hand, seats around 60,000 – so even half full, will still generate plenty of feeling, especially if there’s an exciting contest.
Which brings us to the pitch.
The recent history of the MCG pitch has been done to death so there’s no point going over this again. Matt Page, the curator, clearly has a lot of work ahead of him if he’s going to have a Test-quality wicket ready by the 26th.
The problem he faces isn’t to just have a pitch that is Test ready, but a pitch that offers something to both batsmen and bowlers. As talking heads have said repeatedly in recent days, another pitch like the one that allowed Alastair Cook to bat for ten hours in 2017 simply isn’t acceptable.
The surface produces will be under even more intense scrutiny than usual, given the abandonment of the Shield game this week, so he’s clearly caught between a rock and a hard place. If he creates another road, he’ll be doing the MCG no favours, but if he attempts to put some life into the strip and gets it wrong, the Test could be called off. Either way, he runs the risk of being responsible for the ICC imposing sanctions.
This is where the offer from Perth might not be quite so opportunistic as it first seemed, but much depends on how they host the day/night Test with the Black Caps. More importantly, Mike McKenna will be sweating on the same two factors as the MCG: playing on a competitive pitch and drawing strong crowd numbers.
So what’s keeping the Boxing Day Test at the MCG? The key players in this issue are the board of Cricket Australia (CA). Yes, there are the fans and players who want the game there because it’s tradition. But it has to make money and plenty of it, otherwise, why would CA not look at other options, especially if the pitch was sub par?
An agreement has been struck between Cricket Australia and the Victorian Government for the MCG to host the Boxing Day Test, but the most recent agreement is only in place for 12 months. This heaps even more pressure on the MCG to get it right, not only with the pitch, but with the whole Boxing Day Test experience.
What happens if things go badly wrong in Melbourne? Perth has already put its hand up to host and there’s no doubt they’d be strongly supported by the WA government. They’ve got the facilities and if the Test this week is a success, they’d have strong grounds to make a bid, should that ever become an option.
Adelaide and Brisbane would also likely throw their hats into the ring but would probably sit behind Perth in terms of favouritism. Adelaide could point to its tradition of hosting the Australia Day Tests, then the Australia Day ODI long weekends and more recently the great success of day/night Test cricket. Brisbane, specifically the Gabba, seems to have issues, according to plenty of comments from Roar pundits, so they might struggle to convince CA to move the Test north in late December.
Sydney would probably stay right out if this. It now has its own tradition with the New Year’s Test, replete with a pink shirt day and this is one fixture that continues to do well for CA. In addition, hundreds of thousands go out to watch the start of the Sydney to Hobart race, so filling the ground on Boxing Day might be a tough task.
This is all conjecture at this stage. Perth is yet to host the Black Caps and Matt Page has a few weeks to get a good Test pitch ready.
It would be wrong to wish ill of the MCG. Over the past 38 years, there have been some terrific Boxing Days at the G and it would be great to see these continue.