Irreverent temple to Australian gods of sport

Richard Yallop pays homage to the MCG
Click to follow
English batsmen undertaking their first tour to Australia should be given the following health warning: Beware the MCG roar.

When an English wicket falls at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Richter-scale tremor can be felt across the city. And inside the great concrete amphitheatre the batsman begins his lonely trudge back across the outfield to the pavilion, accompanied by that deafening roar. There are prettier places to watch sport in Australia, but none more passionate, or involving of the spectator.

If there was to be one temple in Australia where people would go to worship their sporting gods, it would have to be the MCG. It is fitting that the traditional start for the Melbourne Test (changed this year to Christmas Eve) should be on Boxing Day, thus allowing the people to celebrate their dual religions, Christianity and sport, on successive days.

The "G", as it is known to Melburnians, has a gentle approach through trees and parkland. Then the great concrete edifice is upon you and, once you're through the turnstiles, the buzz of expectation strikes. Inside the ground, it bears closer resemblanceto the Colosseum than Lord's. Instead of Lions being thrown to Christians, English opening batsmen are thrown to Australian fast bowlers - Amiss and Lloyd to Lillee and Thomson in 1974, Boycott and Brearley to Hogg and Hurst in 1978, Atherton and Gooch to Reid and Hughes in 1990.

If Lord's is refined, reverential and terribly English, the MCG is up front, irreverent, and quintessentially Australian. It is as much a celebration of the Australian psyche as its sporting heroes. It is anti-authoritarian in spirit, and no respecter ofreputations, as Greg Chappell, then Australian captain, discovered when suffering a run of ducks in the early 1980s. His entry on to the ground to play his innings was heralded by one spectator releasing a duck on to the grass.

The MCG crowd celebrates sporting heroes, like Dennis Lillee, Merv Hughes and Dean Jones, and underdogs. In last week's one-day international between England and Australia A there were huge cheers for the spectators who jumped the boundary boards and tried to dash across the ground without being caught by the police.

The spectators' arrest was greeted with loud boos, and not only from the area of the old Bay 13, where Melbourne's larrikins used to gather to celebrate the feats of a fellow larrikin, Dennis Lillee. In the circumstances, it seems appropriate that the exhibits at the MCG Museum should include Dennis Lillee's famous aluminium bat, which he wielded against England in 1979.

Bay 13 has gone, replaced by the tiers of the monumental new Southern Stand, with its seating for 45,000, which was opened for the 1992 World Cup final between England and Pakistan. But the Lillee spirit survives beneath the new stand, close to where Bay13 once stood. The law now forbids patrons from bringing in their portable fridges full of cans of Victoria Bitter, but their armoury for last week's one-day game included apples, oranges and golf balls, which were thrown on to the pitch. High spirits are common to all; good sense deserts the few.

The MCG crowd is fiercely partisan, and it loves sport. The ground holds the record for the three highest Test crowds in history - 90,800 during the 1961 Test against West Indies, when Australia, set 258 for victory, scraped home with two wickets to spare, winning a thrilling series 2-1; 87,798 during the third Test against England in 1936; and 77,165 on Boxing Day, 1974, against England.

The MCG hosted the 1956 Olympics, and the 1977 Centenary Test. The ground is a spring of memories, such as David Hookes's five fours in one over from Tony Greig in the Centenary Test, or Derek Randall's 174 in the same match; or the astonishing result ofthat match, which Australia won by 45 runs, exactly the same margin of victory as the original Test in 1877.

During winter the MCG becomes the stage for the great Australian Rules contests. The Grand Final, held on the last Saturday in September, has regularly attracted crowds of 100,000, and the ground's record crowd of 121,690 was reached in the 1970 Grand Final between two Melbourne teams, Carlton and Collingwood.

There was a furious public backlash when the officials of the Australian Football League tried to move the Grand Final to their own concrete mausoleum outside Melbourne, to raise their share of the revenue. The Grand Final belonged at the MCG, the people's stadium, and Victoria's Labour state government intervened to ensure it stayed there.

In a society that prides itself on egalitarianism, the MCG's one concession to elitism and social stratification is the "Members", that portion of the ground reserved for the Melbourne Cricket Club, which runs the MCG. Here, English influence and tradition runs deep, in the pavilion's Long Room, modelled on Lord's, the musty corridors, lined with old prints and photographs, and the polished timber stairways.

The pavilion, directly opposite the old Bay 13, remains the heart of the ground. Change has come, in the form of Kerry Packer's World Series, and floodlit day-night matches, but here in the pavilion, the core values of cricket, and Australian Rules, are preserved. It is a less raucous place than Bay 13, but it is no less passionate.