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.
With 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. 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.