No lack of memories as the MCG turns 150
It is a measure of the hold it has on the sporting psyche of the people of Melbourne that yesterday's 150th anniversary of the Melbourne Cricket Ground evoked so many personal memories of Test cricket's first venue. The ground at the centre of Melbourne's two greatest sporting passions - cricket and Australian Rules football, not necessarily in that order - is not the Field of Dreams; rather it is the Place des Memories.
The Melbourne Cricket Ground
© Melbourne Cricket Club
What could be more appropriate that, on the Saturday following September 23 - the date in 1853 marking Lt. Governor CH La Trobe's permission for the Melbourne Cricket Club to occupy the "Police Paddock" - the 2003 version of the AFL grand final should be played? Although the MCG may have seen great feats in the peculiar Victorian game that has spread around, but little further than, Australia, the staging of the final to cricket fans is a reminder that gentler, warmer days are ahead as the cricket season opens.
For it is with cricket that the populace of the Commonwealth associates the MCG. In a country that has made an art-form of ground and governing-body acronyms - the SCG, the SACA and the WACA grounds, to name a few - the MCG is probably the best-known and most revered of all sporting venues.
The MCG is the only cricket ground in the world to have also been the main stadium for the Olympic Games - in 1956. That was made possible by the vast reaches of the original ground, which could easily accommodate an athletics track and all subsidiary requirements for field events. There is also something symbolic about the fact that its playing surface is big enough to test even the greatest throwing arms in the game. The open space of the ground is representative of the huge, dry hinterland that gives the country much of its wealth, history and folklore.
The MCG's place in cricket history is assured for any number of reasons - cricket's first Test venue, Donald Bradman's favourite ground, host of more Tests (95) in Australia than any other venue, and of more Australian Test wins (52) than anywhere else. A total of 155 Test centuries have been hit there, and Bob Cowper's 307 against England in 1965-66 remains the only triple-century scored in a Test in Australia. The highest partnership on the ground is the 346 between Jack Fingleton and Bradman in 1936-37 against England. The best bowling figures belong to Wilfred Rhodes, who took 15 for 124 in the 1903-04 Test, while the best in an innings is Sarfraz Nawaz's 9 for 86 in the 1978-79 series. No great surprise surrounds the fact that Bradman scored most Test runs on the ground - a total of 1671, at the considerable average of 128.53, including nine centuries. Dennis Lillee, no doubt responding to the chants of Bay 13, was far and away the ground's most successful bowler, with 82 wickets at 21.92.
In the more modern one-day internationals, there has not been quite the same amount of time to build up an aura, but that hasn't diminished the quality of play. The best score achieved in 50 overs was 338 for 6 - against the West Indies in 2000-01 - while England hold dubious honour of recording the lowest score of 94 in 1978-79. Mark Waugh's 173 in that earlier match against the West Indies is the highest one-day score, while the 225 between Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting against England earlier this year is the best partnership. Curtly Ambrose, in a 1988-89 match against Australia, took 5 for 17 to achieve the best bowling figures.
In first-class cricket, Bill Ponsford made the ground his own during a remarkable career. Of the five highest scores on the ground, he has four of them. He first scored 429 against Tasmania in 1922-23 and five years later scored 437 against Queensland and also 336 against South Australia in the same season. Eight years later, he was still at it, scoring 352 against New South Wales. Bradman was the other contributor to the top five, with 357 for South Australia in 1935-36. Meanwhile, the best bowling in an innings belongs to Peter Allan, the fast-medium bowler from Queensland, who took all 10 Victorian wickets for 61 runs in the 1965-66 match.
Individual performances are all very well, but there have been other occasions of particular significance. The Centenary Test of 1976-77 was a magnificent event, which had as its crowning glory the repetition of the same score as in the first Test of them all. It was followed soon after by the underarm match of February 1, 1981, a controversial act directed by Greg Chappell that poured new life into the hitherto benign trans-Tasman cricket relationship. New Zealanders might also recall what some observers described as the greatest of all outfield catches, taken by the man who is now New Zealand Cricket's chief executive, Martin Snedden, off Greg Chappell; the appeal for the catch was subsequently turned down by the umpires.
Only a few days after, there was Sunil Gavaskar's attempt to get his partner Chetan Chauhan to leave the field, after Gavaskar was doubtfully given out lbw. More recently, umpire Darrell Hair's calling of Sri Lankan bowler Muttiah Muralitharan in the summer of 1995-96 added to the list of notorious events at the MCG.
Perhaps the final irony in the MCG's history of achievement is that arguably the best-ever innings played on the ground did not come in an official Test. Sir Gary Sobers' 254 for the Rest of the World was rated by Bradman as the best he had ever seen. Bradman was entitled to his opinion, of course, and the MCG has certainly provided enough choices for the sports-mad Melbourne citizens to choose their own favourites.