Boxing Day at the MCG

Possibly the biggest fixture in the Australian sporting calendar is the Boxing Day cricket match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, or the MCG.  This venue is the 10th largest stadium in the world with an all-seated maximum capacity of just over 100,000 making it by far the world’s biggest cricket ground.  The Boxing Day cricket match represents the first day of a (5 day) test match between the home team Australia and whoever is touring that year.  In years when the Ashes series are contested between Australia and England, the Boxing Day test is particularly anticipated.  If you are going to choose just one day in your life to attend a test cricket match, Boxing Day at the MCG in an Ashes series is probably going to top the list.  With my being located just a short walk from the MCG, I booked myself a $40 ticket back in September to ensure I’d not miss out on what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the only thing which dampened the occasion slightly is that the series was already won by Australia coming into Boxing Day so there was only pride left to play for.

I walked with an enormous crowd, many dressed in fake chain mail and all the usual rig that the English travelling fans like to deck themselves out in, for the 20 minutes or so from my apartment by the Yarra river through Federation Square and past the Rod Laver tennis arena where the Australian open is played.  Upon arrival at the stadium we passed the practice nets where Doug Bollinger and Jackson Bird were bowling at somebody else from the Australian camp who I didn’t recognise.  The nets are set below the level of the pavement so the public can have a full view of the action, and I stopped for a few minutes to watch.  I’d not seen international standard quick bowlers in action up close before, and it was seriously impressive.  The speed and power with which Bollinger arrived at the bowling crease and released the ball was awesome, the noise of the jarring halt before the release something which doesn’t get captured well on television.  The distance from the bowler to the batsman seemed awfully short.

Entrance to the stadium was facilitated by superb design and organisation, which the Australians seem to have nailed down pretty well.  The MCG hosts capacity crowds for AFL matches once and sometimes twice each weekend in the winter, so they are well used to it.  I was seated in Bay Q33, Level 4, Row U, Seat 15 which put me at exactly 90 degrees to the middle of the wicket.  This was a good spot, a long way from the grass but high up and with full view of the whole ground, although the stadium is so well designed there is probably not a bad seat in the whole place.  There were a few seats spare in my row (and I had gone alone) so I wasn’t squeezed in, which sometimes happens in stadiums with molded plastic seats.  I found myself sat beside a very nice Australian chap called Greg who had come down from Ballarat with his daughters and some other members of his family, all of whom were wearing Durham CC gear.  Apparently they’d gone on holiday to England last year and caught the final Ashes test at Chester-le-Street and obviously enjoyed themselves.  Greg was a good companion for the match at the MCG, as he knew his cricket, wasn’t blind drunk, and didn’t have a southern cross neck tattoo.  Much as though I admire the Barmy Army for their dedication and boisterousness, I’m glad I didn’t have to sit in the middle of them.  It might be fun for an hour or two, but I’m sure I’d get fed up with them pretty quickly.

I bought an earpiece radio for $20 which allowed the wearer to listen to the ABC commentary of the match.  The first thing I discovered, once I’d got the damned thing figured out, was that the Australian radio commentary was two orders of magnitude better than their commentary on the TV.  The Australian TV commentary generally consists of a string of former Australian players all calling each other by their nicknames, openly supporting Australia, sharing in-jokes about the good old days which half the audience doesn’t get, with the odd Englishman thrown in.  There are no neutrals, such as Michael Holding that the English commentary teams have.  There are some good remarks, but it’s largely a bunch of Aussie lads enjoying themselves, geeing up their own team, and criticising anyone who doesn’t play in an “Aussie” style.  (Their constant praise of Warner’s batting style, even when it clearly fails both him and his team, is particularly grating.)  I was therefore pleasantly surprised to hear the Australian radio commentators – I have no idea who they were, but one was Kerry O’Keefe – going about their business with a quiet, considered authority with a lovely, rolling diction saying exactly no more and no less than necessary.  If the earpiece was not so damned uncomfortable, I’d wear it watching TV with the sound off (I have no radio at home).

I’ve found that watching sport live in a stadium was not nearly as complete as watching it on TV, mainly because it’s easy to miss things and you don’t have the replays.  But the MCG had two enormous TV screens which showed all replays, and coupled with the commentary and an excellent pair of Leica binoculars I had with me, the experience was pretty similar in terms of coverage.

IMG_0322With England being sent into bat first, and again failing to produce anything close to what could be considered an international standard batting display, the atmosphere was strangely muted.  Whole half hours passed by filled with dot balls, maidens, and the scoreboard going nowhere and there wasn’t much for the crowd to get excited about.  It was attritional test cricket, but not what the crowd had come to see.  Most people were disappointed Michael Clarke didn’t elect to bat, giving the crowd a chance to see David Warner in full flow.  On balance, I’m glad I saw England bat, dire performance though it was.  Things perked up a lot in the final session when Australia started taking regular wickets and by the final few overs, every time Mitchell Johnson ran in he was greeted with an enormous roar from the (probably by now well-lubricated) crowd.  It was fun to watch, and to be part of.

The attendance that day was 91,092 which was a world record attendance at a cricket match, beating the MCG record which had stood since 1961. IMG_0326IMG_0327 It was a great thing to be part of, and this record is likely to remain unbroken for a long time.  This quote amused me, though:

“As the birthplace of Test cricket, it is fitting that the MCG has again broken the attendance record for a single day of Test match cricket,” said MCC CEO Stephen Gough. “We congratulate Cricket Australia on this achievement and also acknowledge the contribution of our members towards making the Boxing Day Test a hallmark event on the sporting calendar.”

Right, but those of us at the ground – including the radio commentators – did not fail to spot that the only large area of empty seats was in the Members Area.  There were few seats empty in the general public area, and I think it was only after a concerted effort by the MCC to get its members to drop whatever they were doing and show up that the record was broken.

The poor English batting display aside, it was a superb day.

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6 Responses to Boxing Day at the MCG

  1. Bardon says:

    Kerry O’Keefe is a living legend in Australia for his cricket commentating. He actually announced that he was retiring during the morning session of the Boxing Day test. I know this because I was listening to him live on ABC radio when he said it, as I drove to my sister in laws.

    As far as the Channel Nine coverage has went, I think it would only be an English supporter that didn’t like it, the Australian fans love it just as we have loved this excellent series. Unfortunately I haven’t actually heard the Barmy Army get into gear on this trip including the MCG test.

    I have also attend an Ashes game at the MCG on Boxing Day as well and was in with the Barmy army squad and found it quite amusing, my kids and guests from the UK loved it.

    On the crowd front the MCG gets filled up quite often, it was only a few months ago that Liverpool FC played there in front of their largest crowd ever of 95,000 against Melbourne Victory, the rendition of “Walk On” was up there. It was a far better game and atmosphere than the other similar game played in Sydney between Man Utd and Australian all stars.

    The Boxing Day test is a great day out but I do prefer the AFL Grand Final at the MCG as the ultimate Australian sporting event. Either way it all goes to prove that Melbourne is the sporting capital of Australia. The MCG tour and sporting museum is also well worth a visit.

  2. Phil says:

    Interestingly the members area at the Gabba on day 3 was also the only area with significant free seating

  3. MCC membership gives you access to the MCG ground for all AFL matches there as well as all cricket matches. As the bulk of the sporting fixtures there *are* AFL matches, that possibly means that not all members are cricket fans. Possibly hence some of the weirdness.

    Channel Nine’s TV commentary has traditionally been chaired by Richie Benaud. Although he is a former Australian player and certainly not a neutral, he’s always been much to classy to be obviously biased on air. Alas, though, he is now 83 years old and has been becoming less incisive in recent years. This year he is off the air, after being injured in a car accident a few months ago. (Apparently he drove his own vehicle into an empty parked car, so possibly this is related to his being 83 years old and less incisive). In addition the death of Tony Grieg has left a hole, as he was loud and opinionated and not Australian, and they haven’t found anyone to replace him with.

    It used to be quite common for Australians to watch the TV with the sound turned down and listen to the radio commentary, but it doesn’t really work any more. For various reasons there are slight delays and the broadcasts are not exactly live any more. This also means they are not exactly synchronised.

  4. Bardon says:

    There was a classic scene at Day 2 at the SCG when about 100 Richie Benaud lookalikes cheered ex PM Bob Hawke on as he sculled a beer on demand.

    Quite right about the MCC membership and you wont find a single vacant seat at the AFL finals.

    Not much left now of the Ashes series with Australia to get some more batting practice climaxing with the final highlight of Captain Clarke and his aggressive attack dogs having one last glutinous gorge at what remains of the English batting carcass.

  5. Tim Newman says:

    It used to be quite common for Australians to watch the TV with the sound turned down and listen to the radio commentary

    I’m not surprised, I used to do this with the football in the UK. Richie Benaud was a superb commentator, and I didn’t know Channel 9 used to employ Greig. But I’m not surprised he was loud and opinionated, this seems to be in the job description for Channel 9 commentary, judging by the current setup. David Lloyd is his usual self, but I think Vaughan is trying a bit too hard to measure up. I preferred Strauss’ commentary in the last series, and I prefer the more measured commentaty of Sky Sports. I think having the intelligent neutrals in, such as Holding and Pollock, makes a difference.

  6. Tony Greig went against the English establishment to help Kerry Packer set up World Series Cricket, and one of the things he got for this was a job for life working for Channel Nine. Amongst his various other qualities, Packer was always very loyal to people who had been loyal to him. In the case of Greig, this was a good deal all round, as he was a good commentator, and was probably the second most prominent after Benaud. He was loud and opinionated, but not necessarily in a pro-Australian sense. That part is missed.

    Michael Holding has often worked for Channel Nine, too. Maybe not this year.

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