No such thing as too much cricket!

The Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG, or indeed just the “G” to Melburnians) is on many cricket fans’ bucket lists. I’m extremely fortunate in that this was the second time I’ve attended the game in an Ashes series. Despite a lifeless pitch, suffice to say that this year’s experience has been infinitely superior to its 2006 equivalent.

In both cases, England entered the series 3-0 down. In 2006, England were rolled by an innings and 99 runs within three days, and I spent what would have been Day Four getting hideously sunburnt on St Kilda Beach. This time, however, England gave us plenty to cheer about. Indeed, until the middle of today’s afternoon session, we had a decent chance of winning the game. However, in the end, a combination of rain, the dead pitch and Australia’s extraordinary, immovable captain, Steve Smith, conspired to give the Aussies a draw. I’ve also enjoyed staying in a friend’s house, not a hostel, and being able to afford to partake in Melbourne’s excellent foodie scene and coffee culture.

I skipped Day One of the test, as I was in transit from Auckland, and it doesn’t sound like I missed much after David Warner got out for an eventful 103. On the second morning, things got interesting, with Australia collapsing from 244/3 to 327 all out, thanks in no small part to Stuart Broad rediscovering his bowling mojo. Finally the Barmy Army’s chant of “He’s big, he’s bad, he’s better than his dad” was believable again! Then it was the turn of another senior player in the spotlight, Alastair Cook, to do his thing. Over the course of the following ten-and-a-half hours of play, he took his series runs from 83 to 327, and career tally to a stonking 11,956, by racking up his 32nd century and fifth double-century. Quite a turnaround, and remarkably (and this says a lot about the rest of our batting line-up…) he now topping the series list for England. Class is permanent and all that. When the match petered out to a draw this afternoon, nobody can have been surprised at the man of the match selection, and it was a privilege to have been in the ground for every ball of a great innings.

So what’s special about the “G”? It isn’t an easy question, though hard to look beyond the sheer size of the place. The view from the fourth tier is quite something! There were nearly 90,000 in on Boxing Day and not far shy of 70,000 the following day, approximately twice what I’ve ever seen at any other ground. With that comes atmosphere, of course. I remember finding it quite an intimidating place to watch cricket during a 2007 one-dayer with anti-Pom abuse flying, but this time I found the locals knowledgeable about their cricket, and respectful. The Ritchies (around a hundred blokes dressed as Ritchie Benaud, sitting in the sun in 36-degree heat) provided some entertainment on Day Two, complete with three-part trumpet harmony, no doubt an attempt to trump the English Barmy Army. But the whole crowd rose to applaud Alastair Cook’s hundred and then the double-ton the following day. It’s not a cricket ground in the purist sense, but it’s one hell of a stadium. That said, it felt pretty empty today on Day Five when there were “only” 14,000 people in!

Of those, I reckon the vast majority were English, mostly sitting together at the Great Southern Stand End. I chose a seat today at that end, right above the Barmy Army – a safe distance, but close enough to feel part of the atmosphere. Love them or loathe them, they are part of touring with England, and were in full voice for much of the last four days, often garnering applause and encouragement from the team. Indeed, after the presentation this afternoon, all eleven players ran across from the other side of the ground to show their appreciation, and then Jonny Bairstow came back to give his pads to a young fan in the front row.

To provide a comparison, and because I don’t believe there’s such thing as too much cricket, last night I went to my first Big Bash League (BBL) Twenty20 game at the Etihad Stadium across town. Definitely an occasion to leave the “cricket purist” hat at home, but a lot of fun. And, on a rainy evening, a great joy (and surprise) to discover the stadium has a roof so my concerns about losing the game to the weather were unfounded! Much to the disappointment of the partisan home crowd, the Perth Scorchers were too good for the Melbourne Renegades, thanks largely to Mitchell Johnson, and I find it hard to see past the Scorchers as potential winners of the tournament. The BBL is doing a lot right – I’ll post more on it once I’ve seen another game in Sydney in a couple of weeks.

The England team now moves on to Sydney, and so do I – after two more nights in Melbourne. I’ve heard very good things about the New Year’s Eve fireworks here and so will certainly head into town late-ish in the evening, but don’t plan to rush around seeing things earlier in the day – one of the joys of revisiting a place I’ve been to a few times before is feeling no compunction to do the touristy stuff!

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