ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features

Heart of the matter

In the sporting crown of Melbourne, one jewel glitters more brightly than the rest (and no, it's not the AFL)

Brydon Coverdale

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Melbourne is often referred to as the Sporting Capital of the World, admittedly mostly by Melburnians themselves. Debatable as that title may be, it is without question the heart of sport in Australia. It hosts Grand Slam tennis and a Formula One Grand Prix. The Melbourne Cup is the horse race that stops the nation. It was the first Olympic host city outside the northern hemisphere. Australian Rules football was invented here.

But the city's sporting roots can be traced back to cricket. Melbourne was founded in 1835; the Melbourne Cricket Club was established three years later. In 1838, five men met and created the MCC, each contributing a subscription fee of one guinea for the purchase of bats, balls and stumps. That the Melbourne Cricket Ground had its first members' pavilion before Melbourne had its first town hall tells you about the priorities of the city.

Test cricket was born at the MCG in 1877, when Alfred Shaw bowled the first ball to Charles Bannerman. A new grandstand had just been constructed to hold 2000 spectators. Now one of the world's great sporting coliseums, the MCG is still home to the Melbourne Cricket Club. From those five original founders, the club now has roughly 102,000 members, with a further 233,000 on a waiting list that probably stretches beyond 20 years.

The ground is now the heart of an expansive sporting precinct just outside the centre of the city. A range of sports grounds and training facilities are a short walk from the MCG, including the AAMI Park soccer and rugby stadium and Rod Laver Arena. Former Test cricketer Colin McDonald was largely responsible for the construction of the Rod Laver Arena when he worked as executive director of Tennis Australia.

But, as McDonald could attest, it is the MCG that brings the crowds in hordes. He likes to tell the story of his favourite Test innings, the 91 he scored against West Indies in February 1961. It wasn't close to his highest Test score, but made as it was in front of 90,800 spectators at his home ground, he enjoys the symmetry of having managed one run for every thousand fans.

For nearly 53 years, that was the record crowd for a day's cricket at the MCG, until 91,112 people turned up on Boxing Day 2013 for an Ashes Test with Australia already 3-0 up in the series. Going to the cricket on Boxing Day has become such a tradition for Melburnians that for many it is as essential to the holiday period as a family lunch on Christmas Day. For some it is another family occasion, for others a chance for a long, boozy day with mates.

For hours leading up to the 10.30am start, fans flock towards the MCG from all sides. Perhaps they meet in Federation Square and stroll across the William Barak Bridge to the ground; maybe they catch the train in from the eastern suburbs to Richmond and walk from there. Most will watch the cricket but some may notice barely a ball all day. It's not unlike the Melbourne Cup, an excuse to catch up with friends, a social occasion that happens to be at a sporting event.

The crowds ease off slightly for the remainder of the Melbourne Test, but still the numbers put virtually every other venue in the world to shame. One-day cricket does not draw the numbers it used to in the mid-1980s; aside from the 1992 World Cup final, the record was 86,133 for an Australia v West Indies ODI in 1984. But the presence of two Big Bash League teams gives Melbournians plenty of hit and giggle in January.

Hardly anybody turns up to the Sheffield Shield, of course. That is the case Australia-wide, but is most conspicuous in a ground that holds 100,000. Cough too loudly from your seat in the stands and you might put the batsman off. It wasn't always that way. Melbourne's Boxing Day cricket tradition was originally an annual Victoria-New South Wales Shield game, back in the day when the state rivalry brought in plenty of spectators.

It was through Victoria's Sheffield Shield side that champions have emerged from Keith Miller to Shane Warne, Bill Ponsford to Bill Lawry. There is no stereotypical Victorian cricketer, but they are stereotypically parochial. Take Lawry, Dean Jones and Merv Hughes as examples. Perhaps it originates from the days when Sheffield Shield cricket was a real matter of state pride.

It was not uncommon in the pre-professional era for a man to play cricket for Victoria from October to March and elite football in the VFL, the precursor of the AFL, from April to September. Miller did it, so did Max Walker, Warwick Armstrong and Simon O'Donnell.

That can't happen nowadays in the professional leagues, and when faced with a choice, elite young players nearly always pick AFL. There are more teams, more places in each team, and therefore more opportunities. But at suburban level, come the first weekend in October, players dust off their whites and take the cricket field, their footy boots hung up for another year.

The day-long requirements of cricket can make it a less appealing option for husbands and fathers than it perhaps once was, though, and some teams can struggle to raise an XI. Melbourne is an AFL town and, even in the middle of summer, AFL news often dominates the sports pages of the city's two daily newspapers, the Age and the Herald Sun.

But there is still a love of cricket and its traditions. After all, Test cricket started here. So, for that matter, did one-day international cricket, on January 5, 1971. No other city in the world can boast that kind of cricket pedigree, not even London.

And there is only one venue Australians think of when they think about sport in this city, the self-proclaimed Sporting Capital of the World. It is the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale

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Brydon Coverdale Assistant Editor Possibly the only person to win a headline-writing award for a title with the word "heifers" in it, Brydon decided agricultural journalism wasn't for him when he took up his position with ESPNcricinfo in Melbourne. His cricketing career peaked with an unbeaten 85 in the seconds for a small team in rural Victoria on a day when they could not scrounge up 11 players and Brydon, tragically, ran out of partners to help him reach his century. He is also a compulsive TV game-show contestant and has appeared on half a dozen shows in Australia.
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