Melbourne's bottomless love of sport centres on the MCG and a walk to, around, and inside the oval is the best way to appreciate it. Through the picturesque parkland which leads to the ground, to the pantheon of sculpted greats who guard it and the treasures that lie within, the MCG makes a great spot for a half-day's stroll. This can be done on game day, with the thrill of the crowd permeating the air or, better yet, on a day when the ground is not in use. Then, with the sense of past glory electrifying the silence, the cricket lover is left in peace to ponder this capital of Australian sporting history.
The Cricketers' Bar, Windsor Hotel
Perched at the top of downtown Melbourne on Spring Street, The Cricketers' is an old-fashioned stand-at-the-bar establishment. It's hardly Melbourne's most urbane pub, but is a favourable spot from which to make the walk to the G. The atmosphere is often raucous, particularly on a match day, with the sound of nuggety sports-lovers discussing cricket, horses and footy (even at the height of summer). The bar memorabilia includes Bradman's autograph on a bat and Shane Warne's on a red teapot, among photographs of touring sides and old Surridge and Gunn & Moore gear.
The bar is housed within the grand Hotel Windsor built with Gold Rush money. It was for many years the closest hotel to the MCG and hosted touring cricket teams; some of Bradman's letters were written upon Windsor letterheads. Other guests have included Muhammad Ali, Margaret Thatcher and Meryl Streep; it was here, also, that the constitution to federate Australia was devised.
The walk to the G
The best walk from the Windsor to the MCG leads over Spring Street, through the Treasury Gardens and up the hill along the tree-lined paths of Fitzroy Gardens. This is a time-honoured route, trodden by hordes of eager supporters on match day. In bygone days, cricketers themselves would commute this path and the writer Richard Whittington described Bradman being pursued by a pack of boys before the Treasury building. The route also leads past a statue of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, a marvellous conservatory, and bizarre symbols of Empire in the form of Captain James Cook's reconstructed cottage along with a mock miniature Tudor village.
Around the MCG
The mighty MCG looms from the spur of Fitzroy Gardens with the route to the ground leading over a railway into Yarra Park. Saturated in history, some of the parkland's towering eucalypti are scarred from having their bark removed to fashion canoes with by Aboriginals. Here, too, the first games of Australian Rules football were played with the remarkable local sport borne out of massed groups of men playing by regional English rugby rules - or none at all - engaging in extended wrestling bouts.
While descending toward the oval, the towering sight of a boyish Neil Harvey in sculpted bronze, flourishing an on-drive, heralds that one is entering a sporting shrine. A ring of similarly deified figures surrounds the oval: an impish Shane Warne whose hand is inevitably graced with a cigarette by some passing wag on Boxing Day; the glorious arched sight of Dennis Lillee, all elegance and athleticism in delivery; the lesser known Victorian of the inter-war period, Bill Ponsford, charging down the wicket; a belligerent Keith Miller in delivery stride; and the affable valedictorian Bradman with hat doffed and bat aloft. Interspersed are statues of football greats denoting Melbourne's reverential attitude toward her winter game.
Within the MCG
The greatest wonders lie within the MCG's immense walls and many are housed by the National Sports Museum in the basement of the Olympic Stand. The museum perfectly balances fun and history. Bright, exciting games and interactive exhibits offer children (as well as adults) the opportunity to throw down a wicket, shoot archery, or play Australian football, while quieter rooms hold superb memorabilia to transport any cricket lover. Alongside glitzy enclosures, like a talking hologram of Shane Warne, are rare artefacts from the Melbourne Cricket Club. There are not merely historic bats and balls but toby jugs, fine plateware, placards, papers, paintings and a grand piano. It's a fascinating collection of cricket and, along with exhibits from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, gives a rich background for visiting the MCG.
A visit to the sporting museum is well complemented by a tour of the ground (offered only on non-match days). The tour winds through dressing rooms, media boxes and the MCC Members Reserve. It's not quite Lord's but the Members is stunning with oil paintings and tapestries, and a patrician Long Room. The sight of the empty stadium itself is staggering and one feels both the grandeur of this colossal ground as well as how bizarre Sheffield Shield matches must be when watched by a couple of scattered hundred spectators here. The most rewarding aspect of the tour, though, is the guide, generally an older Member in a blazer, as weathered by watching sport as a fifth-day pitch. Brimming with anecdotes and character, the enthusiasm of these volunteers is a humbling and endearing experience for any cricket tourist.