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“I have got nothing to do with that.”- Dennis Rodman may be organising another North Korean tour for ex-NBA players to mark Kim Jong-Un's birthday, but don't mention the political executions.

When shield cricket was Christmas

What Forty years since the last of the traditional Victoria v NSW matches over Christmas

Where MCG, Victoria v NSW, December 23-27, 1973

The legacy The diminishing of the domestic game's status in Australian cricket

The first cricket match between Victoria and NSW over the Christmas/Boxing Day period was in 1877-78, when they were the biggest colonies and their rivalry was the biggest in the game. NSW won that match by an innings and six runs.

After federation, Victoria and NSW became the biggest states in the commonwealth and their cricket rivalry was still the biggest in the game. It became tradition for Victoria to host its annual Sheffield Shield fixture against NSW at the MCG beginning either just before Christmas or just after.

NSW players were forever disgruntled about being forced to miss Christmas at home, but the fixture was a staple. Men wearing hats and coats and women wearing hats and shawls poured into the MCG to see what was often the the biggest match of the season given the episodic nature of Test cricket in its early history.

For Victorians, the most satisfying Christmas match against the old rivals was in 1926-27, beginning on Christmas Eve. NSW made 221 before Victoria settled in for the longest haul. The first four batsmen made centuries: Bill Woodfull (133), Bill Ponsford (352), “Stork” Hendry (100) and Jack Ryder (295) as Victoria compiled 1107 runs, a shield record. Victoria went on to win by an innings and 656 runs. The crowds over the four days included 22,893 on Boxing Day and 22,348 the next day. The tradition of Victoria and NSW playing over the Christmas period continued until 1973-74, when the match began on December 23. Players from that match told Fairfax Media during the week there was no particular build-up to indicate that the tradition was about to end. The build-up was slightly more intense than usual simply because it was between the game's biggest rivals.

As for memories of the match itself, there were none forthcoming. Test matches stick in players' minds because they are written about and talked about through the decades; the players' minds are constantly jogged. But that's not the case with shield matches. Top-order batsman Paul Sheahan, who played 31 Tests, said Victorians regarded the NSW game as the “premier game”. “The two strongest states would always attract attention,” he said. “You were under a bit of pressure. There wasn't the direct, personal, destructive sledging like there is now. But there were always a few sharp comments. You knew you were under pressure.” Middle-order batsman Alan Sieler, who was on the verge of selection in the Test team several times, said the players looked forward to the match because it would be in front of the biggest crowds. The only crowds to compare in his experience attended a match against Western Australia at the MCG in 1972-73. The crowds in that match topped at 13,372. They were there to see WA's charismatic pacemen Dennis Lillee and Bob Massie.

The crowds for the match between Victoria and NSW in 1973-74 were 11,858 and 10,430 for the two days before Christmas. Then 18,450 on Boxing Day and 7316. Victoria compiled a first-innings score of 273, after which Victorian captain Keith Stackpole lashed out at NSW because of its tactics with paceman Steve Bernard. Bernard went off half an hour before lunch and did not take the field during the afternoon session. “This is one of the roughest things I have seen on a cricket field,” Stackpole told The Age. “Bernard was given virtually four hours' rest and was allowed to come on fresh after tea after everyone else had slaved their hearts out. “You can't tell me he could get over an injury that kept him off the field that quickly. If he could, he is Superman.” Bernard finished with 5-48 for the innings. Stackpole scored 63 for the Vics while Paul Sheahan top-scored with 77. NSW captain Doug Walters, the Test star, said Bernard had injured his index finger during fielding practice. He said he was unaware he had done anything wrong in allowing the paceman to stay off the field.

Replying to Stackpole, he said: “He's probably lucky Bernard didn't bowl earlier in the innings.” Victoria skittled NSW for 128, with Test paceman Max Walker taking 6-50 in a superb spell, bowling unchanged for 14 overs. Rick McCosker, batting at six, was the top-scorer for NSW with 33 not out. While Sheahan and Sieler were unable to recall much about the match during the week, they were right in remembering that both teams were filled with Test players. The Victorian team had eight players who would gain Test experience, including Ian Redpath, Richie Robinson, Jim Higgs and Alan Hurst.

The only players to never earn a baggy green were dashing opener Robert Rose (the son of legendary former Collingwood VFL captain Bob Rose), Sieler and fellow middle-order batsman Bob Baldry.

“If you watch a Victorian game these days, you don't see too many Test players,” said Sheahan, who is now the MCC president. “But in those days Victoria probably had about five. Fans could go to a shield match and see a fair quality match.” Victoria scored 237 in the second innings, with Rose (50) and Redpath (51) top scoring. NSW went into the final innings needing 383 to win, a huge task given its first-innings performance. Sieler said this week that NSW was especially up against it because of the pitch. “In those days the MCG wicket used to deteriorate something shocking before the end of the game.” The visitors looked out of the match when they were 5-137. Then they strung together a couple of handy partnerships, with Ian Davis (75) and Gary Gilmour (72 not out) the mainstays. Victoria's grip on victory loosened when the NSW innings stretched into the last hour. The Vics were woeful in the field, giving the visitors a sniff of clinging on for a draw.

The worst dropped catch came at 9-308 when Gilmour drove leg-spinner Higgs to Baldry at mid-off but he grassed the chance. Three balls later Bernard, the NSW No.11, hit a ball from Higgs into the leg-side trap but Redpath dropped it. Gilmour and Bernard held on for another 23 runs, eating up valuable time, before Walker went to the top of his mark with four eight-ball overs remaining. Finally, with only 26 balls remaining, Walker trapped Bernard leg before wicket to end NSW's innings on 331 – 51 runs short of the target. The Vics had dropped six catches and missed a stumping. Hurst was the pick of the bowlers, returning figures of 6-115. Walker and Ray Bright both picked up two wickets. The next season, in 1974-75, the inclusion of a sixth Test for the Ashes series meant the start of the Melbourne Test had to be pushed from its usual spot in the new year back to Boxing Day. And it's remained there ever since. Bright, who is now a Bushrangers selector, said this week that he had no recollection of the last match between Victoria and NSW over the Christmas period apart from the size of the crowd. “The crowd was very big for a shield game, I can assure you,” he said. “It was probably the biggest shield crowd most of us played in front of. But I think Boxing Day has now got its proper place on the calendar, hosting a Test Match.”

Numbers up

1 minute of visibility and then it's gone. A new water-based vanishing spray will be used by referees the Brazil soccer World Cup to mark a line on the ground where the defensive wall, and ball, must be stationed at free-kicks.

4 Melbourne Victory players - Jason Geria, Nick Ansell, Connor Pain and Scott Galloway - look set to miss four A-League matches next month as they take part in the under-22 Asian championship in Oman.

What they should do ...

... is be more like Shinji Ono. The Western Sydney Wanderers' midfielder is a superstar in Japan, and an outstanding representative for soccer in general. While playing here he has promoted Japanese events and encouraged bilateral cultural understanding. Wouldn't it be great if the A-League had more players like that? Or better yet, if they were foreign ambassador's? Imagine if John Berry, American Ambassador, played up front for Brisbane. Or if Englishman Emile Heskey combined playing for Newcastle with bridging relations between Australians and English cricket tourists. It would be hard, very hard in fact, though he'd have some public support. An Indonesian goalkeeper could be hired to stop goals and smooth political ties. How that could be achieved is difficult. Maybe by not talking about the goals he could stop the goals. - LUKE MORRIS, Bendigo

Email your contribution to: sundaysport@theage.com.au or twitter: @sundayagesport

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