Every year, at Christmas time, I ponder the idea of tradition. Christmas is, essentially, a time to remember that gentle little story, about the baby and the star and the shepherds and the kings and the – I’m guessing – relieved mum and dad. But in the West, especially over the last two hundred years, when we think about “Christmas traditions” we think of trees and St Nick, gift giving and carol singing, stuffed turkeys and stuffed stomachs. And that’s just Christmas Day tradition. What about the traditional “Boxing Day Sales”? And, in Melbourne, the traditional “Boxing Day Test”?
In lots of ways, the Boxing Day test, which happens at the Melbourne Cricket Ground between the Australian men’s cricket team and whichever international team is in town, is what the historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger would describe as an “invented tradition”. In 1983 they published a book about the subject, basically unpicking some British “traditions” that, they argued, were sold to the public as being ancient and immutable. These lefties had a good point. Tradition is a useful political tool. What better way to shore up a crumbling monarchy (for example) than to adopt some awesome ceremonies and claim that “they have always been so”?
We have come to think Boxing Day cricket at the ‘G as happening, like forever, but it has only been an annual fixture on the international schedule since 1980. The tradition of Sheffield Shield cricket on Boxing Day has kind of been squished sideways in our collective memory. So too, the MCG is not the only place to have hosted a post-Christmas bash of the cherry. There is a long, rich tradition of Boxing Day cricket in all parts of Australia. These too have been pushed to the margins of our sporty story telling. It kind of suits Melbournians to claim Boxing Day cricket as their own, as it fits into the city’s styling as THE SPORTS CAPITAL OF THE WOOOOORRRRRRRRLLLLLLDDDDDDDDD!
Don’t get me wiring – I love spending the day after Christmas with 90,000 of my closest friends – and the English – at the MCG. I love the fact that eskys are stuffed with Christmas lunch leftovers and there is an obvious plethora of new shirts and shorts, fresh from the wrapping. I love this tradition, and I am glad we have invented it and made it our own. But Boxing Day games elsewhere, there have been, I tells you. Take, for instance the many North versus South Boxing Day tussles that have been had over the years. Which North, where South? I hear you ask. Well I am referring, of course, to one of the deepest regional rivalries in the country we call Australia – Launceston versus Hobart.
There is a lot of ranting and raving about the Ashes, the rivalry between England and the Australians. But thirty-two years before the ‘Cornstalks’ – as the Australians were known back then – beat the English at The Oval, intra-colony rivalry was hot in Tasmania. In The Companian to Tasmanian History published by the University of Tasmania, Judith Hollingsworth traces the tensions between the Northern and Southern parts of the State back to the very start of the nineteenth century. Both cities were settled differently (Hobart direct from England, Launceston from Sydney) and each had separate administrations that answered to Sydney. Even after 1813, when Hobart became the governmental centre of the entire island colony, Launceston was defined by its affinity to Sydney and a degree of enmity towards Hobart. After all, Hobart was all convicts and government money, wasn’t it? Launceston was more private enterprise and free love. Or free enterprise and private love. Or forget about the love bit, I just put that it to check you were paying attention.
Anyway, by the mid 1800’s, Hobart was twice the size of Launceston. It was still some decades before the north of the island would really boom economically: once those miners and farmers got going in the 1870s, the region above the 42nd parralel really started to rock. But even when all that was way off in the future, you get a sense of the Launcestonians (?) sense of chutzpah. In 1843, for example, some locals formed the Launceston Cricket Club making it – according to them at least – the second oldest in Australia. Then in 1850 – yes 1850 – the lads of the Launceston Cricket Club met the dons from the Derwent in the neutral territory of Oatlands. And they showed those Hobartians (!) beating them by twelve runs in the first of many intra-colony grudge matches. Launceston were the “Champions of Van Dieman’s Land”.
The evidence suggests that, at least to the 1880s, this was an annual event, The Mercury describing it as “the most important cricketing event of the year”. The games drew a crowd, even when interest in local club cricket was reportedly on the wane. There were temporary pavilions constructed and lunches served for the players and the onlookers, and the match reports would fill precious column inches in the local newspapers. Not surprising – some large sums were wagered on the results. It stands to reason these games would be a big deal. I mean, in those days a journey from Hobart to Launceston could take fifteen hours. But it was worth it. It wasn’t just about cricket. This was about identity.
From the 1860s, these big games would, on occasion, be scheduled for Boxing Day. In 1862, for example, the Launceston boys travelled south to take on the Hobart Town ‘Colts’. The game, played on the Domain, was interrupted by rain*. Making two shy of a century, the Hobartonians defeated the visitors by four and twenty runs. In other words South (98) def North (74).
So what happened to this tradition? I cannot categorically say that this North versus South fixture was absolutely annual. But there are most certainly reports of the game being played well into the 1950s. If it has fizzled, I urge the good people of Tasmania BRING IT BACK! And if you do, believe me, you have a long tradition you can build on.
*couldn’t resist that one.