Mind games in Melbourne
To those watching from thousands of miles away, cricket grounds colonise entire cities. Colombo shrinks to the grass banks of the SSC, and surely, the stands of the Rec cover all of St John's. In the teenage imagination, the MCG is always bigger than the trams and Flinders Park tennis.
This is admittedly a uni-dimensional, inaccurate view, but across what New Zealand band Split Enz called the "tyranny of distance", a cricket ground often becomes the city it inhabits. So if it's pretty Adelaide and tough, scalding Perth, does that mean that Melbourne must falls into a category of hulk - incredible or otherwise?
Not fair, not fair.
It has taken 25 years for Melbourne the city to outgrow the MCG in my head, and for the G to downsize suitably. Mind you, in the city's well-turned-out "sports precinct", the MCG is still top dog. Its floodlight towers are navigation masts for wandering visitors. The Federation Square hubbub is a stroll away, the quiet of the sloping Fitzroy Gardens lies across the tram tracks from Flinders Street Station and the Nolans and the Prestons that reside in silent contemplation across the river in the National Gallery of Victoria.
The MCG has always been a piece of athletic theatre that Indians took to wholeheartedly because it went toe to toe with Eden Gardens: one hundred thousand in the '70s, and we would wonder if they sounded like the folks in Calcutta as well. Besides, India have won more Tests in Melbourne than at any other Australian venue. Okay, so it's only two Test wins, but that's two out of a mighty, memorable total of five Indian Tests wins in Oz.
This is where Ravi Shastri drove around in his Audi, team piled on top, on bagging the Shastri-esque title of "Champions of Champions" in the 1985 World Championship of Cricket final. For the '92 World Cup final, they then built a stand that was bigger than most cricket grounds in the world. Its concrete awesomeness was reflected in its name - the Great Southern Stand. That name itself made it sound like a Rushmore sculpture, and it carried an echo of the mystic Icehouse song about the "Great Southern Land".
That's how nutty the sport's tragics can be. We hear cricket everywhere.
On my first visit there was a sighting of the great ground after a solemn lunch at the Melbourne Cricket Club. A very generous gesture by a kind host that was made possible only after a hurried change of clothes (jeans are still not allowed in the members dining room). It was a first indication that the Bay13/SCG Hill and Yabba folklore did not form the fountainhead of Australia's cricketing ethos.
Fifteen years later, the MCG was accessed with press credentials and featured a break in its stands, the gap open to the sky and filled with construction debris and a heap of rubble. It was a perfect backdrop to what was happening to the Australian bowling on day one, when Virender Sehwag hit 195. Mark Taylor is known to have remarked to Bill Lawry, "That's just rude, Bill."
The MCG's renovation relocated the dressing rooms and media conference rooms at the far end, accessed by what I thought was a common corridor. The utter alarm on Aussie team physio Errol Alcott's face one evening at the sight of a reporter strolling towards his private domain proved that better signage would have helped.
That particular Test ended in tears for the Indians, but Melbourne extended itself to daily tram rides to a friend's home in the comely eastern suburbs. Morning rides were filled with bubbling and babbling about India coming good on the day. The evening trip was a generally gloomy haze of cricket gossip and bilingual whining about offices and deadlines. A journo friend turned a 7/11 store opposite Flinders Street station into a virtual office. He will deny it but I was convinced they also acted as poste restante, took messages and organised taxis.
Cricket tours allow wandering travel but within set tram lines (hotel-ground-team-hotel-restaurant-hotel etc), but in 2013 there landed a heavenly lollilop. A two-month fellowship at the Australia-India Institute (AII), at the University of Melbourne provided revelation through research: of a city detached from the seasonal familiarity of summer, a place of short-term residence with bone-chilling temperature drops, cloth-cutter winds, and steep inclines around the most unlikely corners.
Locals boast that Melbourne has been named the most "liveable" city in the world four times in a row. This when Sydney's got the dazzling waterfront, that iconic skyline and those New Year fireworks. What Melbourne has is a vitality that must see it through worse weather than a wicked "spring". Like all great cities, it takes in every size and type: culture vultures, sports nuts, shopaholics, and that newest branch of the human species, homo epicurereus, who sniff around for "world cuisine", which is possibly something resembling world music.
If the G must still be your epicentre, delight is possible in all directions. Go east on Tram 16 to St Kilda beach, its clutter of yachts and weekly weekend markets. Or south-west to find the Maori Chief Hotel (established in the 1880s), where the Kiwis of the city pack its standing-room-only floors and sing their national anthem when the All Blacks play. North lies the Italian restaurant quarter of Lygon Street and the hippie chic of Fitzroy. Then there are the trams, the gardens, and no matter where you go, it helps that Melbourne cannot serve up a bad cup of a coffee.
En route to a commuter station, an espresso martini can be had in the middle of the day, poured with a wink into a paper cup. That is Melbourne: however demanding the weather outside, inside it contains the warmth, aroma and familiar comfort of a beloved coffee shop.
It is ridiculously easy to get around the city, and anyway, in the sports precinct on match days, directions are rarely needed. Always follow the fans, sense the vibe and keep a straight face. At a rugby league game featuring Melbourne Storm v South Sydney Rabbitohs, up in the frozen heights of AAMI Park, a man tries to persuade his female companion to shift a few rows below. Not for warmth at a lower altitude, but because "it's better to hear the tackles". A player was stretchered away due to concussion, as the DJ kept hollering, the music kept thumping and fireworks kept going off. This goes on for seven months. Eat your heart out, IPL.
During my two-month odyssey, the new-millennium G formed a respectful segment of the Melbourne kaleidoscope: loved its statues, loved its museum and marvelled at its merchandise. Walking towards it via Batman Ave was a source of amusement but the path was named neither after the unknown cricketer nor a comic book character, but rather a 19th-century colonial explorer.
Yet for the better part, the G turned into a meeting venue with cricket officials as part of AII research paper. Until Melbourne local, friend and fellow traveller Chloe introduced me to a city ritual: early dinner at the zany, eccentric Pellegrini's on Bourke St before a brisk walk to the MCG for an Aussie Rules football game. A match between Essendon and Carlton came with strict instructions: "Barrack for Essendon. No Carlton tendencies will be tolerated. Even though you are staying there."
This when Chloe's club of choice and loyalty, Essendon, was going through an almighty drugs - sorry, supplements - scandal, featuring a footy star-turned-dandy coach, 34 players, officials, doctors, the national anti-drug agency, and a blow-by-blow drama playing itself out daily in the papers and on TV.
At the game, the "Bomber" loyals turned up in massive numbers, on the back of four straight defeats and the whirlpool of the "peptides" dramas. Under the floodlights, the MCG was a giant maw, with thousands (attendance that night: 53,630) filing in, occupying the seats in the highest tier of the stands. From there anyone on the field looks a distant stick figure in a Drysdale painting.
For a lower-bay spectator looking outward and upward, the G loomed. It rose to a dizzy, almost dead-vertical height, colosseum-like in intimacy but formidable and foreboding in its gigantism. While a longish, memorable stay in Melbourne had given the ground perspective and human scale, the MCG had in fact, physically only grown larger. Spooky.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo