The Melbourne Cricket Ground December 26, 2003

The gladiator's stage

When Brett Lee got one to kick from a length in his second over and struck Virender Sehwag on the head, a huge cheer went up in the stands

Entering the Coliseum
© Getty Images

When Brett Lee got one to kick from a length in his second over and struck Virender Sehwag on the head, a huge cheer went up in the stands. It brought home the chilling truth about Steve Waugh's description of the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the morning's papers: he likened it to a coliseum which the Australian cricketers bestride like giant gladiators.

Eden Gardens on its day can seat more than the MCG, and its passionately partisan and cacophonic crowds can daunt and unnerve the visiting team, but the MCG is built to be intimidating. Eden Gardens has a wider expanse and the spectators seem spread out. The MCG, with its tall grandstands - the Southern Stand, which alone seats 45,000, has four decks - closes in on you. Batting at the northern end, an opposition batsman can easily feel the huge mass of spectators, most willing him to fail, bearing down up on him. The MCG isn't pretty and picturesque like the Adelaide Oval or Hobart's Bellerive Oval, but is a stage, one of the grandest ones in the world of sports. And the Boxing Day Test match brings out its awesome best.

This year, of course, the MCG isn't at its best. It's under a massive renovation programme to get ready for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, and the capacity has been reduced to 74,000, which hasn't pleased Waugh, who would have liked to play his farewell Test in the ground of his debut to a maximum audience. Giant cranes protrude into the sky dwarfing the halogen pillars adjacent to them; the members' stand, which has been rebuilt several times already, has been demolished; and the Bill Ponsford Stand is in a stage of reconstruction. It will take 18 months more for the MCG to be fully restored and ironically, by then its official capacity will have been reduced by 5000.

It is the 150th year of the MCG, and to many Australians who are apologetic about their country's lack of history, it is a great source of pride. The first-ever Test was played here, between Australia and England in 1877, and the one-day international was stumbled upon here too, early in 1971 to compensate the spectators for a rain-ruined Test. The Centenary Test here in 1977 was a memorable affair, with two low first-innings scores, a pulsating second-innings century from Rod Marsh, and an heroic solo 174 from Derek Randall in the last innings. The abiding image from that match is of Dennis Lillee being carried off on the shoulders of Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh, after bowling Australia to a victory. The results of the first and the 100th Test were the same, but the amazing coincidence was the margin: 45 runs both times.

There are no shortage of memories, of course. For Indians, there are some special ones. In 1947-48, Lala Amarnath hit a double-century here against Victoria, which was to be his only century of that tour. Neil Harvey hit a hundred in the Test match in that series, bringing it up with an all-run five. The ropes have reduced the playing area now: in those days the picket fences used to be the boundary. Before Adelaide, two out of India's three Test victories had come at the MCG: BS Chandrashekhar bowled them to a win in 1977-78 with 12 wickets; in 1980-81, Kapil Dev braved an injured thigh to bowl out Australia for 81 on a deteriorating pitch. That's a Test remembered, of course, for the infamous walkout threat by Sunil Gavaskar.

Random memories stray to Don Bradman's second-innings hundred in the Bodyline series (1932-33) after being dismissed for a duck in the first and missing the first Test due to illness; to Hugh Trumble's two hat-tricks - he took the last one with the last three balls of his career; Shane Warne's first hat-trick; the longest day in Test cricket, in 1998-99, when England beat Australia on the last day after Australia had gone for the extra half-hour, confident of securing victory. Greg Chappell once had the mortification of a duck set loose on the ground during his horrendous run of scores in 1982-83, and Mike Gatting was incensed to find a pig released to mock him when he captained England here in 1986-87.

But MCG isn't all about cricket. It is the home of Australian Rules football, a game so intensely physical that most players don't last more than five years. The annual AFL Grand Final, held every winter, is a showpiece event of the Australian sporting calendar. There's a statue of the Aussie Rules great Ron Barassi here next to Don Bradman's, and the AFL Hall of Fame occupies pride of place at the entrance to the Southern Stand. The record crowd for any sporting event here was registered in 1971: 121,000 for the Grand Final. However, the biggest turnout ever stands in the name of the evangelic crusader Billy Graham, who drew 130,000 in the mid-1950s. Gatherings of such a magnitude will never be seen again at the MCG.

Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.