Christmas in Australia: Holiday season Down Under is a cricket-enthusiast's wonderland

If someone from the Northern Hemisphere wants to visit the antipodes, they would need to break down a few stereotypes. Things are quite different in Australia. The climate will give you a headache, as you struggle to reconcile with the concept of summer in December. Christmas is spent on the beach, not bundled up indoors. Children build sandcastles, instead of pretending to smoke in the morning fog. Sunscreen, not sweaters, are the things you don’t leave home without. Like I said, things are quite different here.

Australia celebrates Christmas with as much cheery gusto as any other Commonwealth country, just in a different way. None of the banal practices the Northern Hemisphere, thank you! Here, they serve up a healthy helping of sport as soon as the school holidays begin, leading up to Christmas Eve.

 Christmas in Australia: Holiday season Down Under is a cricket-enthusiasts wonderland

Runners pose after completing an annual Santa fun run at the Sydney Opera House. Reuters

Open the website of The Age, a Melbourne-based newspaper, and on the right hand of the news tab, stands the AFL (Aussie rules Football league) tab, still there, more than two full months after the last game of the AFL season. A place of pride, if there ever was one. And a declaration of priorities on behalf of the Australian public.

Then Christmas Day dovetails into the excitement, giving it a moment of pause; no sport is played on that day, though the Big Bash League (BBL) might change that. The torrent resumes on Boxing Day, with a vengeance.

Cricket has become an inexorable part of my first Christmas summer in Australia, starting a day before Christmas Eve. On the evening of 23 December, I returned to the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG)  – where I had last set foot as a player in 2008 – this time seeing another side of it.

Last time, it was the honours board in the dressing room, this time it was a look at the media hall of fame. As I watched the Sydney Sixers take on the Hobart Hurricanes, the night was panning out pretty much as planned. I was convinced that the stunning view from the press box and the buzzing pace of Shaun Tait would be the highlights of the night. I was wrong.

As I descended onto the outfield for the post match interviews – close to the plaque of Don Bradman, whose nose players rub for good luck – the big screen flashed the strangest words: Carols will begin in half an hour.

Yes, carols. On a cricket ground.

It was another example of how well Australians do marketing. This is the country where soda is sold as ‘sparkling’ water; many actually swear by it, over normal, or ‘still’ water. But combining carols and cricket meant fan engagement of another level.

German tourists sit on their surfboards as they wear Christmas hats at Sydney's Bondi Beach on Christmas Day in Australia. Cricket is also big Down Under. Reuters

German tourists sit on their surfboards as they wear Christmas hats at Sydney's Bondi Beach on Christmas Day in Australia. Reuters

And so, half an hour after the end of the game, the ground was partly opened to the public. Scores of kids streamed out, clad in magenta Sixers Christmas hats and seasonal smiles. Their parents followed, as did I, as we all gravitated towards the stage that had been set up, where a band began singing. Despite my limited knowledge of carols, I can safely assume that they were belting out all the hits, since everyone else in the crowd seemed to be singing along and dancing.

Around the ground, Sixers volunteers were distributing complimentary LED magenta candles, having already flooded the crowd with magenta Christmas hats during the game. Fans in magenta shirts were relishing a rare opportunity to walk and lounge on the same grass that will soon bear Steve Smith and Misbah-ul-Haq’s men, when the entire SCG will turn pink in a few weeks’ time.

Two volunteers in costumes roamed the ground, one dressed as the Sixers mascot, and the other a ridiculously inflated Santa Claus who was playing cricket with the kids. Doug Bollinger sat among the fans with his young family, camouflaged in the many magenta shirts and hirsute men.

The scene on the ground contrasted that in the dressing rooms. Housed inside the iconic members stand, nothing had changed there for decades. The Victorian style tables, the narrow wooden staircases, the architecture, all took you back years. Even the plaque to immortalise Phillip Hughes, the newest addition to the pavilion, was crafted to look like it had been installed in the 1980s.

On the ground though, a new tradition, just two years old, was endearing old and young to the charm of this stadium in a new way. With an experience I will never forget, it certainly bound me to the SCG in yet another way.

Christmas Day means two things for Australians. The beach, and family. For once, the country deliberately takes a day off from sport. But as if to show they can’t bear it, they make up for it with a deluge of sports on Boxing Day. Try holding your breath for a minute; see how hard you breathe out? That is how hard sport hits you after the boxing day break.

For the Americanophile couch potatoes, there were five back-to-back NBA games, plus two NFL games on TV. Also on the tube were three Test matches, including the traditional Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) fixture. Then three Women's BBL games (WBBL), were live streamed. The Sydney Hobart yacht race, a 70-year-old annual competition, was flagged off from near the famous Sydney Opera house as well. And later in the night, the National Basketball League was on TV.

Stephen Pamphlet, a tourist to the BBL, was enjoying both the Aussie summer and the cricket. “I’ve come over from the UK, and its winter over there, no way can you see any cricket. So this is lovely” he said.  “I’ve been to two games already. Boxing Day in the UK is so cold. But here, I could take my grandkids to the park!”

I spent my Boxing Day at Blacktown International Sportspark, following the WBBL. Originally developed for the Sydney Olympics, the venue provides the western Sydney suburbs an athletics track, baseball/softball diamond, Aussie Rules football ground, and a cricket oval.

A perfect place to spend a sporting holiday, I thought, as did most other Thunder supporters, who braved a hot day to support their team. “It’s a tradition to be around cricket if you are an Aussie”, said Karan Gill, who has lived in Australia for more than 20 years.

“We follow the Thunder, and them selecting Harmanpreet (Kaur) was a really good move. She has pulled a lot of support from western suburbs, and of course the Punjabi community. We didn’t come watch the games last year, but this year we have been at every game,” Gill said.

The game ended with the Thunder steamrolling the Melbourne Renegades, with Alex Blackwell scoring 61* off 38. Harmanpreet finished unbeaten on a controlled 24. She would play two more games back-to-back in the next two days with the Thunder. In the Australian Christmas, the sport never stops.

The author, Snehal Pradhan, is a former women's international cricketer and tweets at @SnehalPradhan

Updated Date: Dec 29, 2016 10:39:37 IST