Australia v India, 3rd Test, Melbourne, 1st day December 26, 2003

Victoria Bitter at the MCG

The Melbourne Cricket Ground has a greater claim than Lord's to be the home of cricket, having hosted both the first Test and the first one-day international, in addition to being the premier patch of turf in the most successful cricket-playing



The Aussie contingent at the MCG tries its hand at an alternative sport
© Getty Images

The Melbourne Cricket Ground has a greater claim than Lord's to be the home of cricket, having hosted both the first Test and the first one-day international, in addition to being the premier patch of turf in the most successful cricket-playing nation of all. That said, it's something of an eyesore these days, especially when viewed from the Observation deck atop the Rialto, the tallest building in town.

The Colonial Stadium, called the Telstra Dome in its present guise, is all sleek and futuristic lines, and the same can be said of the Flinders Park complex next to the MCG. But the G - as some locals like to call it - has seen better times, and is going through a face-lift in time for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Even from the Rialto, across the Yarra River, you can glimpse the stands under renovation and the construction cranes that dot the landscape.

When you finally arrive there though, thoughts of aesthetic flaws are quickly replaced by awe. This is an amphitheatre masquerading as a modern-day stadium, with the mammoth four-tier Southern Stand almost as steep as the chalk cliffs of Dover. The atmosphere can always be a bit raucous, even more so on Boxing Day, which is as big an event here as it is in the UK. But where England has a full programme of football, Australian sports aficionados greet the Christmas hangover with a Test match. The MCG first hosted one during the festive season in 1952-53, when West Indies were the visitors, but that game started on December 24, with Christmas Day being a rest day. The Boxing Day tradition started in 1968-69, and has been an integral part of the cricketing calendar ever since.

Of course, the Catholic feast of St Stephen has nothing to do with fists bound in shiny leather. Instead, it's an occasion when the fortunate give charity to those who have far less, and Australia seemed to imbibe that spirit the way they fielded throughout the day, fluffing catches and making a hash of run-outs.

By tea, the Australian contingent - at their most vocal when Brett Lee and cohorts were testing the strength of helmet material early in the morning - were sipping their Vitamin B, as some refer to Victoria Bitter in these parts, and munching pies with a complete absence of Christmas cheer. In recent seasons, Melbourne Tests haven't counted for much, with Australian usually wrapping up series long before they reached the MCG. It had been many a year since these blokes saw anyone put their team through the hot-wash-rinse-hang out to dry cycle like Virender Sehwag did today, with shotmaking that was impetuous, effervescent and enervating all at once.

A sizeable group of Indian fans had driven down from Sydney yesterday, and by lunch, they were downing the Carlton Draught, and eating their rice-sambar, scarcely able to believe their luck. "It's beyond our wildest dreams," said Vishy Narayanan, a software engineer from Sydney. "I never thought I'd see an Indian team play like this abroad." Vishy and his friends have an indoor cricket team called the 8dulkars, and the only blot on their afternoon was the premature exit of The Man, out first ball to a fired-up Brett Lee.

Not everyone was impressed with Lee though. At lunchtime, I stumbled on a group of Australian fans having a small hit in front of Gate 1. One pointed to the statue of Betty Cuthbert, Olympic legend of the 1950s, and said, "She'd have been more use than Binga [Lee] was this morning. Somebody should tell the bloke that you're supposed to hit the bloody wicket, and not the helmet!"

Back indoors, Geoffrey Boycott was lapping it up. When asked about the almost genteel crowd - 10,000 Indians made a far louder racket despite being vastly outnumbered - he chuckled and said, "It's like Man United, innit? You go away from home, sit tight for an hour and then silence the home crowd. India have done that really well today."

Australia fought back in the final hour, but by then, the cockiness that usually characterises this crowd had long evaporated. They knew their team was in a dogfight, and India can take much pride tonight from the fact that they shut up the acid-tongued folk in Bay 13 for most of the day. That takes some doing, especially on Boxing Day.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He will be following India throughout the course of the series.