December 27, 2007

Leafing through the pages of MCG’s sepia-tinted history

By H Natarajan

The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is a hallowed piece real estate that is steeped in rich cricketing history. It’s a venue on which every cricketer wants to leave his mark. Like the Lord’s in England and Eden Garden in Kolkata, the MCG is Australia’s showpiece cricketing venue that now enjoys the exalted status of National Heritage.

The hoary MCG, which is the first choice when it comes to hosting cricket championship climaxes like the 1992 World Cup final, was also the main stadium during the 1956 summer Olympics and the Commonwealth Games last year. But it is a cricketing venue for the Boxing Day Test match that it is most known for, though in winter it becomes the home for Australian Rule Football.

The Aussies are passionate in their love for sports and it’s surreal to behold 100,000 fans egg their countrymen under the dazzling light that bathes the ground from the tallest towers in the world. In fact, before new safety measures reduced the capacity of the MCG, it had accommodated as much as 130,000 – that number for evangelist Billy Graham event in 1959. Yes, the MCG has also hosted non-sporting events, including concerts by David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Elton John and Billy Joel among others.

MCG was the venue of the first-ever Test match – between Australia and England, 130 years back. Australian opener Charles Bannerman scored the first ever Test hundred – 165 in a total of 245 in which the second highest score was 18. Bannerman scored 69.6% of his side's runs from the bat - still a record in Test matches - before retiring hurt at 240 for seven. Though it was a timeless Test, the match ended in four days. Any guesses how many witnessed the historic game? A total of 20,500 for all four days combined!

Exactly hundred years later, the MCG hosted the Centenary Test between the same old rivals. Australia beat England, and in a remarkable coincidence, by the same margin as they did in the first-ever Test – 45 runs.

The Test will also be remembered for Rick McCosker to come in to bat with a bandage over his fractured jaw. It was McCosker’s heroics which helped Rodney Marsh become the first Australian wicket-keeper to get a Test match hundred. It was in this Australian innings that the late David Hookes hit five fours off England captain Tony Greig. England’s moment to cherish came from Derek Randall brilliant innings of 174 before Dennis Lillee left his imprint yet again with a haul of 11 wickets.

MCG also bagged the honour of hosting the first-ever One-Day International – again, between Australia and England – on January 5, 1971. As in the inaugural Test, Australia emerged victorious.

The Aussies are not in the same mould as the Englishmen when it comes to tradition, which is underlined by the fact that many of cricket’s revolutionary changes took place during Kerry Packer’s breakaway World Series Cricket. And it’s this flexibility in thinking that poses the biggest threat to MCG’s future as a tradition in hosting the Boxing Day Test.

Though the MCG came under redevelopment at a cost of A$434 million for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, it still faces stiff competition for future Boxing Day Tests from the Telstra Dome. This retractable roof of this modern venue at Melbourne’s Docklands offers a nice alternative and has hosted One-Day Internationals, but Telstra officialdom believe that their venue with drop-in pitches is worthy of hosting the year-end Test.

India have fond memories of the MCG. In 1977-78, Bhagwat Chandrasekar took 6 for 52 and 6 for 52 to help India record their first Test win in Australia. Then, in 1981, Kapil Dev bowled India to a sensational victory. After conceding a huge first innings lead of 182, India fought back brilliantly in the second innings, through Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan - the manager of the present Indian side – who adding 165 runs for the opening wicket. It was in this innings that captain Gavaskar was so furious at not only given out wrongly but by the jibes directed at him by the Aussies as he was making his way back, that he threatened to concede the Test.

Gavaskar pushed his reluctant partner towards the pavilion and the Test would have been conceded had it not been for the calming presence of manager Shahid Durrani who came on to the ground and saved the situation from reaching an ugly end. Eventually, set a target of 143, Australia were skittled out for 83 runs, with Kapil Dev finishing with an unforgettable five for 28.

The MCG was also witness to two major cricketing controversies that threatened cricketing relations between Australia and the nations at the receiving ends. The first was the infamous incident when Greg Chappell ordered his brother Trevor to bowl underarm to prevent New Zealand from winning the third final of the 1980-81 Benson & Hedges World Series Cup. New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon called it, "the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket", and "an act of cowardice". And on Boxing Day in 1995, Muttiah Muralitharan was sensationally no-balled by umpire Darrell Hair for throwing. Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga was enraged by the umpire’s decision. That incident at MCG soured Sri Lanka’s relationship and it has remained soured to this day.

Chappell and Hair have since taken severe blows to their cricketing fortunes. On the other hand, Murali has touched new peaks in Tests while Chappell’s target – Sourav Ganguly – is having the time of his eventful cricketing career.

Ganguly is playing his 100th Test that is now under way at the MCG. And, coincidentally, it’s also the 100th Test hosted at the MCG.