G Whiz!

The joys of seeing a Boxing Day Test at the MCG for the first time

My ticket to Boxing Day action.


IT ALL HAPPENS AT THE ‘G’


Back in Melbourne they affectionately call it “The G”. I can’t understand why such a big ground should have such a small name.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is monstrously large, but exceedingly pretty. It’s exteriors are almost as majestic as the insides.

We had made this plan back in 2005: Indra Modak, Andrew Corcoran and I would see the first day of the 2010 Boxing Day Test at the MCG. In May 2010 Indra suddenly called me one morning: “Heck, I hadn’t realized that it would be an Ashes test. I’ll have to make the booking really early!”

EXCITEMENT MOUNTS

After the Brisbane draw, and the Adelaide defeat, Australia’s Ashes prospects looked dim. But the Perth win changed all that. Melbourne was again abuzz with Ashes fever. (Although, looking back, I am now a little puzzled. How could this Aussie Test side win anything? Was there a hand of God somewhere?)

On Christmas we were scanning weather predictions. The forecast said ‘Cloudy with a few showers’. I was worried, but Andrew seemed unperturbed. “We might lose some play, but they can dry the MCG completely in 15 minutes even after a heavy shower,” he said.

We were staying about 15 km from The G and decided to take the local train to the ground. The compartment was packed with cricket fans. Andrew remarked that he had never been in such a crowded train before. I invited him to visit India and take the 9.15 am local to Churchgate.

THAT OVERWHELMING FORCE

We had to walk the last kilometer to reach the ground and made our way across lush green grass. “We’ve finally had good rains this year, that’s why the grass looks so much nicer”, Andrew told us. From all possible corners a sea of humanity seemed to be hurriedly making its way to the MCG. Andrew wondered why everyone was rushing. “Every seat is numbered”, he reminded us.

As someone more familiar with crowd frenzy I knew why people were rushing. An overwhelming force overtakes you when you are in the vicinity of a cricket ground. You want to be inside immediately; you can’t wait to behold the wondrously beautiful sight of the oval green.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground


NO WATER BOTTLES!


We finally reached our Gate 6. It was an easy entry since all access points were broad, wide and well-aired. A few hundred could be coming in every instant, but it never feels crowded. “The MCG has been designed to evacuate 100,000 spectators within 15 minutes”, Andrew told me.

Just before entering our bags were checked. The security personnel were friendly unlike the dour CISF officials at Indian airports. Cameras and binoculars were allowed; even the hefty transistor with multiple batteries – which would offer us the added pleasure of listening to Jim Maxwell on our earplugs – was allowed. Only filled water bottles (that could be hurled at players) weren’t allowed.

I told Andrew that at Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium we had giant nets acting as a barrier between players and spectators with water bottles. He was shocked. “Nothing should come between you and your cricket ground”, he declared. I remembered something similar that Brooke Shields had said in 1981, but said nothing.

IN THE ‘CATTLE CLASS’

A minute later, I was inside the MCG! It was an awesome engineering marvel. The outfield was unbelievably green with alternating light and dark shades of green in neat rectangular patterns. I felt a compelling urge to go and touch the grass, but we were too high up and too far away.

We were seated over second slip’s head with the Ponsford Stand to our left. Our seat was cramped – it would have reminded Shashi Tharoor of a plane’s cattle class – but I was amazed that I could see every inch of the ground; most Indian grounds have a blind spot because some metallic pillar hides some part of your view.

VICTORIA’S GREATEST CRICKETER

I allowed myself a few minutes to behold the grandeur of the MCG. The stands were still only half full, but there was a lot of activity near the pitch. Andrew used his binoculars for a better view and suddenly remarked: “Jesus, he’s really lost a lot of weight!” I had no idea who he was talking about, although I should have guessed. It was Shane Warne, Victoria’s greatest cricketer.

“You really love him here, don’t you?” I asked Andrew. “On the field, of course … but we don’t like what he does off the field!” We then talked of other Victorian cricketers and wondered why Peter Siddle was the only local in the Australian test team. “I think Brad Hodge is a good batsman, but how can he get in if he rubs Ricky the wrong way?” Andrew asked. I felt reassured. I thought such things only happened in India.

HEADS OR TAILS?

The home team makes a disastrous start. The ground was now filling up, almost silently. As the crowds swelled I sensed that ‘something in the air’ feeling, and that delicious shiver down the spine when there is the prospect of seeing a Ponting, Pietersen, Tendulkar or Sehwag bat. I tried to visualize what it must have been like when Viru plundered 195 runs here in less than a day.

As the captains walked out to toss, two enormous display screens came alive with the most breathtakingly crisp pictures. I had never seen such sharp pictures before. I could see Andrew Strauss trying not to smile and Ricky Ponting trying not to scowl.

Strauss won the toss and invited Ponting to bat … but there was no big reaction from the crowd. I was surprised. Tosses are noisy affairs in India, with Ravi Shastri adding considerably to the din.
 
BEER AT 10 AM

With the MCG almost full – except for an empty stand reserved for members – Andrew decided that it was time to fetch the first round of beer. Beer at 10 am? But, of course! This was the Boxing Day test at the MCG and the experience would be incomplete without beer. He returned 15 minutes later and didn’t seem too happy. “There’s a huge queue out there and I had to pay 34 dollars (Rs 1700) for these four beers!” he told us.

I thought Andrew was unhappy with the expensive beer, but soon discovered that there was another big reason. “What sort of seats have we got?” he asked my friend Indra, and, lowering his voice, added “Poms all around us!”

How does one distinguish between the Oz and the Pom? If they talk, it is the way they speak English. Otherwise look at the T-shirt that they are wearing.

Fortunately there was an easier way that morning at the MCG. Before the game started, both teams queued up to sing their national anthems and the spectators joined in. So I just had to check who sang “God Save the Queen” and who sang “Advance Australia fair”.

OOH! AAH!!

The beers finished very quickly (“these are really light beers!” Andrew lamented) and moments later the MCG erupted into a crackling applause as Strauss led out his men, and Watson and Hughes followed, practicing their drives as they walked in. I noticed that English players sported near-white flannels while Aussie flannels had a creamier tinge.

As James Anderson ran in to bowl the first ball there was a slow, rhythmic hand clap. I marveled at how cricket spectators everywhere in the world do the same thing. Well, almost. In India, the rhythmic clap is also accompanied by whistles and a wide variety of other musical and not-so musical sounds.

Anderson’s fifth ball almost got Watson. And then there was exactly the same hushed ooh and aah that we hear in India.

PONTING IS NOT GOD

Ponting argues with Aleem Dar. The captain is respected in his country, but not venerated like Sachin.With the match going nowhere for Australia, I spent more time looking at the 84,435 spectators. I was curious to see how Aussie spectators would react when Ponting came in to bat. I was hoping to see the sort of ovation that Tendulkar receives anywhere in India (indeed anywhere in the world) when he comes out to bat with that customary gaze skywards. Sadly, the Ponting ovation was much less effervescent, although he did much better than Michael Clarke who was soon to follow him.

I wondered why; after all, Ponting has five Boxing Day Test centuries at Melbourne. I eventually concluded that while Australian fans think very, very highly of Ponting’s batting, he is not a cricketing God. Ponting is respected, but not venerated.

‘IF YOU THROW, YOU GO!’

As wickets kept falling in a heap – most batsmen were caught by the wicket-keeper or in the slips – I could see that the Australian fan was deeply disappointed by his team’s performance. But I didn’t hear a single profanity uttered even after Australia failed to reach 100. I tried to imagine how Eden Gardens might have reacted if India had been dismissed below 100; at the very least every cricketer would’ve been called suvvar-er bachcha (son of a pig).

This isn’t to say that the MCG cricket fan is inert. Late in the afternoon, when Strauss and Cook effortlessly compiled a century partnership, and many litres of beer lined the walls of the belly, disgruntled fans decided that it was more fun to throw paper rockets on the field than see Hilfenhaus being smacked for another boundary.

The MCG police immediately got tough. The giant screens warned: “If you throw, you go!” When a tipsy fan continued to throw his paper rocket in spite of the warning, he was arrested, photographed and ejected instantly. The photo ensures a life ban from entering the MCG. But the fan still exited smartly and to a tumultuous applause.

HAPPY POMS

The “Poms”, many of them with t-shirts announcing their allegiance to the Barmy Army, were a happy and excited lot. A group of Poms sitting next to us decided to chant “Jimmy, Jimmy!” as Anderson ran in to bowl. Sadly the chant lacked both the music and the magic.

It’s much better in India. I remember Hyderabad’s Ranji Trophy matches at the Fateh Maidan back in the 1960s. A hunk of a guy would unleash an earth-shattering screech “Jai …simhaaaa!”, and the rest of the stadium would respond with an infinitely long “ooo …ooo”. The stylish Jaisimha (has Indian cricket seen a greater stylist?) would acknowledge by raising his raised collar even higher.

The Poms playing in the middle were an equally happy and energetic lot, celebrating joyously after every fallen wicket. I was impressed that England bowled their full 15 overs every hour even though Anderson and Tremlett bowled with such long run-ups. The secret was to reduce between-overs time. The wicket-keeper Matt Prior sprinted like an agile antelope between wickets over after over; I’ve never seen our milk-drinking Dhoni show such alacrity.

YES TO DRS!

But England didn’t get everything right. In particular, Strauss got his umpire decision referral system (DRS) referrals completely wrong. England used up both their referrals before lunch on the first morning.

It’s a pity we don’t love DRS in India because it really adds to the match excitement. I saw 80,000+ people enjoy the drama of watch the replay on the giant screen, and roar in approval when English appeals were rejected. It was compelling viewing, and would, therefore, also be compelling television.

Why doesn’t India want it? My best guess is that DRS doesn’t favour our batting-rich cricket team. And I’ve never understood why we need to stop after two unfavourable verdicts. But then I suppose ICC can’t help being silly.

LUNCHTIME

Unlike some Indian grounds, the MCG has no safety nets between players and spectators. It was good that we carried delicious bacon and eggs sandwiches for lunch, because the MCG got even more animated during the lunch break. Dozens of kids, aged 9-12, descended on the green oval and had a whale of a time playing their T2 or T5 brand of 30-minute cricket. It reminded me of Mumbai’s Azad Maidan.

I wonder why we shoo kids away from the ground in India instead of letting them play. Security issues? But won’t our kids love to briefly play on the same ground on which Tendulkar is playing?

TV stations too didn’t miss the opportunity. A strikingly attractive lady was called in to talk sweetly and smile brightly. Andrew told me she was Lee Furlong, the famous TV personality, but he forgot to tell me that she was also Shane Watson’s wife.

We also saw Victoria batting greats Dean Jones and Bill Lawry being driven around the MCG in an open car. To my surprise ‘Professor Deano’ got the higher billing; wouldn’t most of us rate Lawry to be the greater cricket person?

‘TODAY WAS YOUR DAY, MATE!’

Finally Andrew and Indra couldn’t take it anymore. Strauss and Cook were batting without a worry in the world, and the Poms around us were celebrating too wildly for comfort. We decided to leave early to beat the tram rush. As we got up Indra glanced ruefully at our morning paper headline: “History will be created at the MCG today!”

Andrew saw the funny side. “Australia did create history today … getting all out for less than 100!” he joked. And then he did something truly endearing: He warmly shook hands with the English supporter sitting next to him and told him: “I have to admit … with the greatest regret … today was your day mate!”

BRADMAN, LILLEE AND NOW WARNE

Dennis Lillee's statue at MCG's 'Walk of the Champions.'Three days after Boxing Day, I decided to return to the MCG. England had just won a famous victory and some Poms were still prowling around the mighty stadium.

It was a very bright day, although a cool breeze ensured that the afternoon was pleasant. It was a pleasure to just potter around and take in the sights. I was especially delighted to see a bronze statue first of Dennis Lillee and then of the Don. The statues are beautiful and contribute to the aura of these great Australian cricketers.

Soon Shane Warne will join this illustrious team.

MEETING TONY LEWIS

As I was walking past the main MCG entrance, I saw a gentleman who looked very familiar. A moment later I recognized him: this was Tony Lewis who captained the MCC side that toured India in 1972-73.

I walked up and shook hands with him. Lewis seemed surprised that I remembered him. I told him that I still have great memories of the 1972-73 series that India won 2-1.

“We should have won it 2-1 actually”, Lewis said, “if only we had won that Madras Test!” I recalled that India barely managed to reach the below-100 winning target with Pat Pocock bowling well.

“Oh you still remember Pocock! But perhaps you’ve forgotten that Underwood didn’t play that test. If we had Underwood on that Madras pitch the match was ours”, Lewis said, beaming at the memories of a match played some 40 years ago.

Meeting Tony Lewis

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