FOR many of us, summer begins today, when the umpires call ''play'' in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. It's another of those fine Australian traditions that isn't quite what it appears.
As late as 1973 the closest thing to a Boxing Day tradition was for the Victorian Sheffield Shield side to host NSW, the southern team enjoying the bonus of making their hated rivals endure Christmas Day away from family, and in a shuttered-up Melbourne no less.
The following season the MCG hosted an Ashes Test on Boxing Day. It was an instant hit: the attendance of 77,165 was the third largest to watch a Test match at that time. The next summer's Boxing Day Test, against the West Indies, topped even that.
And, allowing for a couple of small hiccups such as the Kerry Packer incursion so entertainingly chronicled in a television miniseries this year, the Anzac-emulating Boxing Day Test was born. Alas Test fans could be excused for feeling a little underappreciated in 2012.
It was a little jarring for ABC Grandstand listeners last Sunday, after the wrap-up of the poorly-attended Hobart Test, to hear the sports commentary team sounding pumped up, to some ears much more pumped up, about the game about to begin at the SCG between the Sydney Sixers and the Perth Scorchers.
Twas ever thus in cricket's endless battle to keep up with the modern world. Donald Bradman in his essay ''Whither Cricket'' in Wisden in 1939 made ''a plea for cricket to adapt itself to the quickening tempo of modern life'' by ''speeding up the game''. He made it again in 1986, six years after the Packer Revolution had reinvented cricket once more. ''Despite my deep feeling for the traditional game … we must accept that we live in a new era … the public are primarily interested in entertainment.''
But we see much reason for optimism for the core format of cricket - the five-day battle of skills called the Test match, 135 years into its history. This optimism is not quelled even at this point in a summer that has been a bit back-to-front for connoisseurs. We have already waved goodbye to world champions South Africa, who emerged 1-0 victors from three Tests in the important but second-tier cities of Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. Sri Lanka, a talented side but with a poor Test record against Australia, play the marquee Tests in Melbourne and, on January 3-7, Sydney, having lost in Hobart.
The main meal, so to speak, was consumed before the entree, even if for understandable reasons: the South Africans want their own Boxing Day Test.
As summer winds down, 10 games of 50 overs a side will be played by Australia against Sri Lanka and the West Indies. There will also be three games in the Twenty 20 format, two against Sri Lanka and one against the West Indies. They will not likely be remembered next to the feats of the South African Test team, which defended for dear life and then ruthlessly turned the screws to beat Australia in the Tests.
Now another era beckons, as clamantly as the new reality ushered in by World Series Cricket in 1977.
Last week Cricket Australia called in bankers to help squeeze up to $400 million out of its TV rights. The moves come as the golden era of Channel Nine's TV coverage looks to be approaching its late summer. Kerry Packer is checking out the Valhalla XI's classic catches and no local tycoon has stepped into his shoes. Television advertising revenues are under pressure as never before, which perhaps explains the tawdry spruiking of newly minted memorabilia, not to mention the alarming promotion of gambling.
And while Twenty 20 has not crested, its masters are finding that generating fan loyalty for a bunch of wackily named teams in the domestic Big Bash league is proving a challenge.
But Test cricket, so often derided as the establishment format, is showing itself to be the most adaptable format of all. The next frontier - day-night Tests - is not far from being breached, and bravo for that.
Test cricket remains the fine French champagne that endured the rise of the alcopop. Its tradition and tribalism stares down the backhand sweep and the slogger.
Happy viewing from, as Paul Kelly put it, behind the bowler's arm.