Cricket: MCG: Welcome to the pressure dome

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IN MELBOURNE it is known simply as "The G". To the rest of us it is the world's largest cricket stadium, able to seat a massive 100,000 people, nearly half of them in the monolithic Southern stand. Playing cricket against Australia is always an experience in Melbourne, especially on Boxing Day, and it is one that stays with you for life. England were due to experience it for themselves with the start of the fourth Test this morning.

During my playing career I graced The G's turf six times, four of them one-day matches, including the World Cup final against Pakistan in 1992. On that occasion a world record crowd of 90,000 turned up, though the intimidation aspect of playing in front of so many (Lord's holds 27,000) was diluted without the presence of Australia, who had already been knocked out.

This was not the case in 1983 when England played here in a World Series match. Even though it was a rain-reduced match, 83,000 were present, the previous record before the World Cup final. The noise was terrifying and every time Allan Border or John Dyson struck a boundary - which was often as the 15-over rule was in use here even then - the sheer volume made your head feel as if it was about to burst. It is the modern equivalent of the Coliseum and great pockets of air felt as if they were being shifted by vocal power alone.

Communication, other than by sign language, was impossible and most other senses were too numbed to allow rational thought to be applied. Not surprisingly, despite my managing to run Border out, England lost.

Melbournians are renowned for their love of sport. However, Boxing Day at The G is a tradition that embraces not only Melbourne, but also the rest of Australia and even beyond. Indeed, Aussies from as far away as Singapore and the Gulf have flown back especially to take in the action. Last year, against South Africa, 72,000 turned up, despite the appalling weather.

As you would expect during the festive season, consumption on the opening day is fairly conspicuous, particularly over the six or so hours normally set aside for a day at the cricket.

This year precautions have been taken and, for the first time ever, only light beer (less than three per cent alcohol) will be served, though this will revert back to full strength brands on days two, three, four and five. Even so the caterers expect to shift well over 250,000 litres of the stuff, along with 10,000 litres of Coke.

Meat pies are also something of an institution at the MCG and 20,000 are expected to have been shifted by stumps on the first day. During the same Test in 1982 one of them found its way into Ian Gould's hair as he patrolled the boundary. Gould, who was England's 12th man and fielding in front of the then infamous Bay 13, managed to keep his cool. Turning to face his tormentor, and feeling humour was perhaps the best option, he said: "Steady on mate, I only had me barnet done the other day." The reply, chorused by the rest of the bay, was unprintable, and in the true Christmas spirit of giving, several more pies travelled his way.

In fact Gould and England had the last laugh, and he brilliantly caught Greg Chappell at cover point, a dismissal that was crucial in helping England, in spite of a heroic last wicket stand between Border and Jeff Thomson, to squeeze home by three runs. Incredibly about 15,000 people turned up to watch what could have been just one ball's cricket on the final morning. But then this is the optimistic nature of Australians.

When England lost to the West Indies in Trinidad last February the team watched a re-run of that match, partly for something to do and partly for inspiration. Whatever the perceived wisdom of such exercises, England won the next Test - an achievement they would give a lot to match over the next few days.