Sport plays a key role in an Australian Christmas. Sports matches are akin to creative events: they are dramatic performances with roles and scripts that those who attend regularly recognise and are able to follow.
In order to gain a greater insight into these events I spent time at one of the great Australian festive traditions, the 2013 Boxing Day Test cricket match. This event takes place each year at one of the most iconic venues, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
As sports fans look forward to the 2014 Boxing Day Test, let’s look at some of the distinctive features of the event. There’s plenty of cricket on the day – but there’s a whole lot of performance that takes place in the stands too.
Time at the Test
The Boxing Day Test occupies a special place in the Australian calendar, sitting within the Christmas holiday period and the southern hemisphere summer. For many who attend it is a time to relax and celebrate with friends and family. It is also a time to drink and to party.
This particular match had a heightened atmosphere as Australia were playing against England, their fiercest rivals in cricket, in the fourth of a five match Ashes series.
By Boxing Day the Australian team were in an unassailable 3-0 position, which further fuelled the celebratory mood. In the lead-up to the game talk had circulated that a record-breaking crowd may turn up – perhaps not a 100,000 capacity crowd but one which may challenge the existing record for a single day’s play in test cricket.
The performance actually begins long before the umpires call “play”.
Given that the match starts relatively early on Boxing Day, the majority of people out in the streets at this time of day are likely to be going to the cricket and many of these dress for their role in this spectacle.
The more mundane of these are in cricket shirts or other sports gear. Adventurous characters are draped in flags, while some are wearing a KFC bucket or hollowed-out melon on their head.
The first act
The stage is set with the teams lining up for the national anthems. The two groups of supporters play their part by urging their teams to even greater efforts. The noise builds as the first ball is about to be bowled. The crowd clap in rhythmic anticipation, cheers and whistles add to the din, and the ball is unleashed by the mustachioed Mitchell Johnson at England’s Captain Cook. The safe negotiation of the first ball is greeted with an “Ooh” of disappointment.
Cricket matches become a series of mini dramatic events with the players and crowd playing their part. For each of these events there is a set script to be followed. For instance, when the ball is hit towards the boundary the spectacle becomes a pantomime. The ball is urged towards the rope as a fielder races to stop it. When the ball wins, the crowd cheer, if the fielder wins, they jeer.
As the sun beats down and the day draws on, elements of performance can be found all around the ground.
Beer snakes are created and these begin to emerge in the late morning sun - this involves the stacking of empty plastic beer cups to form a long “snake”.
Such activities involve intricate choreography with the building of the snake taking place in secret, hidden from the eyes of the stewards and police, and then the separate sections are brought together. The accompanying song “feed the snake and it will grow” is set to the tune of the traditional hymn “Bread of Heaven” and often leads to a rain of plastic cups (mostly empty) being thrown towards the snake’s creators.
There are a number of recognisable roles for spectators to play throughout the day. There are the heroes who manage to grow a beer snake and then evade the attention of the stewards.
There are the villainous MCG Members who traditionally refuse to cooperate with the Mexican Waves that flow around the ground - they are gleefully booed by the “audience”.
And there are the fools, in this case a middle aged man awoken from his drunken slumber, ejected by stewards. As he stumblingly exits stage left he is rewarded by jeers and cheers and he takes his bow to ironic applause.
However many in the crowd play the character of the hyper-masculine ‘Strayan. Their dialogue calls for boasts of how many pies they are going to eat and how many beers they are going to drink. Their scripts also have tales of drunken exploits at previous matches, comic interludes, and plots to invade the playing area. This role is neither hero nor fool. Female spectators that walk past these characters are ogled, whistled and jeered.
An announcement advising spectators to stay hydrated is greeted with glee and raised beer cups. These actors may see themselves as comedic fools making witty repartee but their behaviour can be threatening.
As the temperature rises (and the beer snakes grow) a new sound emerges. A rhythmic thudding can be heard as spectators rise to their feet and their plastic seats snap back. This noise is accompanied by a buzz of excitement and cheers that signal a new act.
In the first scene two protagonists battle each other in alcohol fuelled rages. This may also evolve into a Punch and Judy-esque confrontation with a Police Constable. Ultimately these Mr Punches are ejected from the stage to a rousing chorus of “Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey hey hey, Goodbye”.
In this way every sports match is a stage and the crowd become the players. They all have their entrances and their exits (with some of these earlier than they planned on) and they play many parts. Yet while some of the players may be laughing at their behaviour it remains to be seen whether the off-field play is a comedy or a tragedy.
The curtain has fallen on this particular stage for another year. Sadly the lights have also dimmed for one of Australia’s on-field performers with the tragic death of Phillip Hughes. His sudden passing is sure to impact on the Test this year, adding a somber tone to the festive party.
The Boxing Day Test will be a difficult performance for all involved but it should also be a time to celebrate the achievements of Phillip Hughes and to remember the starring roles that he played.