Cricket, like most sports in Australia, is seasonal. It is played and followed with a passion though not a religious fervor as in the subcontinent. The game supposedly originated in the pastures of England but caught on quickly in Britain’s penal colony Down Under as it did in the rest of the Commonwealth. Having won a hat trick of World Cups and also set incredible winning records in international cricket, Australia today is riding the crest of cricketing glory. The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), built in 1853 and upgraded over the years, is the nation’s most famous sporting arena. It boasts of a tradition that goes back to the first ever Test in history. It was played there between England and Australia in 1877. The Aussies won it by 45 runs, with opener Charles Bannerman scoring Test cricket’s first century. The contest between the two nations came to be dubbed the Ashes from the 1882 Oval Test onward, after a mock obituary appeared in an English paper over what it called the death of English cricket. For long it is one of the most keenly contested events in cricket. The first ever ODI was played at this ground as well. In 1879 MCG witnessed the first hat trick in Tests when Australian Fred Spofforth achieved it against England. Incidentally the first cricketer I met in Australia is also the holder of a unique Test hat trick spread over two innings and three overs – the phenomenally popular, big and burly Merv Hughes, now a national selector. He was book signing in the local Angus and Robertson bookstore of his ‘Caught In The Deep’ an account of his other passion, fishing. I also had the good fortune to attend a Test match at the MCG last year.
If Lords in London is the Mecca of cricket, I suppose the MCG should be the Vatican or Thirupati of the sport. With a seating capacity of about 90000, the MCG hosts not only cricket but also Australian Rules football (footie), soccer and rugby tournaments. It was the venue of the 1956 Olympics and the 2006 Commonwealth Games. In 1977 a centenary Test was played between the traditional rivals and coincidentally yielded the exact same result as the first ever Test! David Hookes who died in a freak accident last year had had a fine cameo in that match. Indian fans would remember the ’85 Benson and Hedges World Championship final that was held there. India under Sunil Gavaskar emerged triumphant with Ravi Shastri taking home an Audi 100 car and the Champion of Champions title. It was Sunny’s last match as captain. In 1992 Imran Khan and his boys lifted the World Cup at this venue, in the fiery Pathan’s swansong outing. The majestic ground is a proud landmark in the city of Melbourne and offers conducted tours to visitors during off event times. It is neighbors with the Rod Laver arena which hosts the Australian Open tennis in January. Impressive galleries, MCC members’ chambers in addition to cricket and football Halls of Fame are some of the highlights of the ground. Cricketers whose statues adorn the premises include Dennis Lillee (who had taken the most Test wickets here – 82), Don Bradman (who had scored the most Test runs here – 1671. The Don’s first Test century was scored here as a matter of fact), Bill Ponsford and Keith Miller. In my early pursuit of the game I have some fond memories of it from the 80’s. In the ’82 Ashes Test Australia started the final morning with their last pair of Alan Border and Jeff Thomson at the crease and needing 37 to win. The duo bravely battled on before Thommo fell to Botham, caught in the slips by Miller after the ball rebounded off Tavare! England won by 3 runs in one of the closest matches ever.
In ‘85 during Steve Waugh’s debut Test, India felt the excruciating pain of helplessly watching rains rob them of an easy win – 67 runs were needed with all wickets intact when the last day was washed out. The Kangaroos are on extra high adrenaline when playing England, or the Poms. The reasons are obviously more than just cricket – there are psychological undercurrents akin to say India playing Pakistan. ‘Tonk-a-Pom,’ displays the giant electronic scoreboard before replays of English bowlers being hit for boundaries or English wickets falling. It is generally taken in good spirit. The hordes of English supporters, who tour along with their team and call themselves the Barmy Army, are countered these days by the Boony Army, local fans with the mustachioed ex-opener David Boon for their patron saint. A Boxing Day Test match at the MCG has become a regular fixture since many years now. The MCG however is not a stranger to controversy. A Sri Lankan friend told me that she simply stopped going there after her first experience many years ago – it was the match where umpire Darrel Hair called Muralitharan seven times for throwing! This ground was also the scene of an infamous incident in ‘81 when Aussie captain Greg Chappell and his brother Trevor bowl underarm for the last ball of a ODI match against New Zealand, thereby denying the Kiwis a chance to go for the six runs needed to tie. Richie Benaud, commentating on TV, instantly dubbed it the most disgraceful act in cricket history. India last played in a Boxing Day Test in ’03. Australia won then with Ricky Ponting scoring a double hundred. The only saving grace for us was opener Sehwag smashing 195 with five sixes in that 80 yards boundary where many a four are run. This coming summer the Indians will visit to take on the Aussies yet again.The 2006-7 Ashes was keenly awaited by all since the previous year England under Michael Vaughan had pulled off the unimaginable by regaining the title after 18 long years, in a closely fought home series. Australia was seeking sweet revenge and they did it in great style, with a clean 5-0 sweep of the Test series. By the time the tour came to Melbourne they were up 3 nil and the series was already sealed. Tickets were sold out well in advance and all eyes were on the one statistical interest in the match, that of local St. Kilda lad Shane Warne completing his tally of 700 wickets. I found myself standing in a snaking queue under the summer sun for a book-signing by the blonde Warne the Friday before Christmas. The only specialist bowler among Wisden’s five greatest cricketers of the twentieth century, Warney had announced his plan to retire at the end of the series. He achieved his landmark of 700 victims on the opening day itself as England crumbled like cookies. On the morning as I watched Ricky Ponting at net practice I wished this Tasmanian would score a triple hundred and emulate Taylor, the last Aussie captain to do so, eight seasons ago against Pakistan. Punter disappointed as he fell for 7 the next day. Gilchrist who just one Test earlier at Perth had blasted a 57 ball ton, went cheaply too. Instead it was to be Mathew Hayden, holder of records for highest scores in Tests and ODI for his country, who would be my hero of the match. He carved a classy hundred and in the company of the colorful Andrew Symonds put on 279, the highest partnership at that ground in 38 years. Symonds, whose best till then was 72, bettered it by scoring a maiden century which he completed with a six. They both scored 150 plus and in the second essay England fell again like nine pins. Monty Panesar was a big hit with the crowds who cheered him on at every opportune moment. The gulls took their places in the green and flapped and flew frantically with the approach of the speeding red cherry. Green and gold dominated the costumes of the spectators though red and white were not much behind.
On a sultry day when beer flowed like the Yarra River, Flintoff and his men were made short work of. Australia romped home by an innings and 99 runs. The relentless cheer and support of the Union Jack wavers were in vain. The Mexican Wave was very much in vogue during the match. Curiously this was banned soon after this Test match. Back at the ground for a day-night ODI a month later I could see rebellious youth risking the instigation of waves. They were chased around and escorted out by alert Victorian police. Teeny girls came in T shirts screaming ‘Save the Wave’. The scoreboard now and then cautioned of exorbitant fines for patrons daring to enter the green. The Test match ended in three days flat. I got my fourth day’s fee refunded! Warne with his five wicket haul and his patient knock of 40 won the Man of the Match award. He was chaired by colleagues as they made the victory lap. Pacer Glen McGrath and opener Justin Langer who were also playing their last series were given an emotional farewell by the crowd of 79000.
Joviality reigned among the spectators even as they took the trams back home. Shouts of what I sincerely believe to be this country’s national anthem, a simple six word ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi!’ rose to a crescendo. Boisterous youth headed to pubs for the celebration bash, singing impromptu ditties extolling the invincibility of the Australian team. As a neutral but amused observer, I could not but endorse that, saying, ‘Fair dinkum, mates!’