MCG maybe the cricket coliseum, but the SCG has produced the fiercest gladiator

Melbourne may be the sporting capital of Australia, but cricket’s glittering jewels have been carved out in Sydney. “Just a few steps more”, said our tour guide as a tour group of six raced to the top of the Victor Ponsford Stand. As we stepped on to the terrace, the noon sunshine schizophrenically greeted us along with a balmy zephyr passing by. Typical of Melbourne’s four seasons in a day characteristic.

The view from the city terrace showed us a Manhatesque skyline with the Eureka Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the southern hemisphere, glistening in the radiant sunlight. But it wasn’t Melbourne’s economic prowess that he was trying to impress us with, it was Melbourne’s true pride — it’s sporting prowess that was on display for us to marvel at.

“This is where I convince you all that Melbourne is the sporting capital of the world; not just Australia, but the world” said our tour guide, decked in an iconic harlequin coloured blazer so iconic of the MCG’s gerontocratic tour guides.

Sporting capital of the world maybe an epithet that can be contested by many a city in the world, but there was truth, a lot of truth to our tour guide’s Melbournian pride. A vantage point bird’s eye view of the picturesque Melbourne and Olympic Park showed us Melbourne’s finest crown jewels on display.

The hallowed Rod Laver arena along with other noticeable tennis arenas such as the Margaret Court arena, the Hisense and several outdoor Bahama-Blue coloured tennis courts arena just across from the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) marks the onset of the tennis season, hosting the first of the four elite grand slam tournaments in the calendar year. Just adjacent to the tennis venues is the AAMI Park soccer and rugby stadium. These spectacular venues alone in Melbourne and Olympic parksplay host to international rugby, football, rugby league, netball, basketball, tennis and of course cricket.

“And just over there is the Etihad Stadium in the Docklands,” said our tour guide pointing westwards to remind us of another 50,000 seater multi-sports stadium, home to the Australian Football League (AFL) and some of its best teams. The stadium has played host to rugby and cricket matches, under its former name, the Telstra Dome (Yes, the MCG has had to share some its cricketing pie in past).

The Australian Open is not the only ‘first’ that Melbourne’s sport nuts take pride in. At 300 kilometres an hour, the fastest cars on the planet have to first burn rubber on Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit in March, which kick-startsa packed F1 calendar.

While we’re talking about races, there is no race that stops the entire antipodean nation like the Melbourne Cup.  And of course, lest I forget to mention that I was viewing the spectacular sporting precinct standing at Melbourne’s most decorated jewel: The MCG, or‘G’ , as Melbournians call it.

“In the year 1999, there was a lively buzz in Sydney” starts our tour guideinterrupting my thoughts. “Sydneysiders were looking forward to the year 2000, not because it was Y2K, it was because Sydney was playing host to their maiden Olympics. At that point I said congratulations, you’re only 44 years behind us” he sneered, accentuating the competitive Melbourne-Sydney rivalry.

The 1956 Olympics was a watershed moment for Melbourne and Australia given it was the first time the summer Olympics had been held in the southern hemisphere and the MCG played a central part in the games.

As a cricket tragic in a country famous for coining the term, a visit to cricket’s cavernous colosseum, the MCG, was not just necessary but it was mandatory, it was nothing short of a pilgrimage.

While the proverbial home of cricket maybe attributed to Lord’s, the Melbourne Cricket Club has an honour that is the envy of the other MCC — the Marylebone Cricket Club; in that it was the venue to host the first test match way back in 1877. How about a double then? It was also host to first-ever ODI played way back in 1971, albeit an inadvertent simulation of a washed out Test match that created the sport’s newest tradition. A tradition that the MCG is now thankful for having played host to many a ODI final of a major event, most recently the 2015 World Cup final.

And for the cricket cognoscenti, the most sacred of all those traditions is the Boxing Day Test match at the G, which sees a full house. So sacred is the occasion to Melbourne, that a Melbournian friend of mine once jokingly told me, my family considers Christmas the day before the Boxing Day Test. And if this wasn’t enough to testify the cricketing importance of Melbourne, Cricket Australia’s (CA) headquarters is stone’s throw away from the stadium.

Melbourne has enough to satiate a sports fan’s appetite. And with cricketing pedigree that perhaps only Lord’s could compete with, the honour of Australia’s cricket crown has to go to Melbourne, right? Hmm… perhaps not ,or rather not so fast!

They said you wouldn’t get a fair perspective of Australia if you only visited Melbourne without making a sojourn in Sydney and vice-versa. And for cricket connoisseurs, I could echo visiting the G without seeing the SCG wouldn’t lend a fair perspective as well.

The difference between the two is as evident as its sizes. The G is cavernous and imposing and the National Sports Museum it housesis nothing short of stunning. It displays Australia’s finest sporting moments with the highlight being a Shane Warne hologram talking to you like something out of a Hollywood sci-fi movie. And while the MCG may boast of the marvel that it is, it’s the heritage green roofed SCG’s Member’s pavilionwhere most of Australia’s and some of the world’s finest cricketer’s have indeed called home.

The G’s Sydney counterpart however is very different. The museum is far from the modernity that the National Sports Museum echoes. Instead it seems as antiquated as the venue’s origins. Don’t get me wrong; stepping into the SCG museum is like stepping into a Grandfather’s antique store, where each artefact calls out to you, each with a compelling story to tell that would send Goosebumps down your spine.

From Steve Waugh’s Baggy Green and his famous red handkerchief or the original nameplate displaying the name DG Bradman or something iconic belonging to Richie Benaud, to name just a few, are on display. For a cricket tragic to not appreciate this would be nothing short of a cricket tragedy.

If you thought Victoria’s cricketing pedigree was impressive, New South Wales’ cricketing pedigree lies in producing names such as Sir Don Bradman, the late Richie Benaud, Glenn McGrath, Mark Taylor, Michael Bevan and of course cricket’s most famous twin brothers – the Waugh’s; names that have cemented their legacy in cricketing immortality.

Some would go on to attest, that most of Australia’s finest cricketing colossus have been New South Welshman. With names like the above, one would hardly call it brazen, but the bigger issue that got me musing was that if Melbourne holds the colosseum, why do the fiercest gladiators come from Sydney?

Sydney no doubt as the oldest and the largest city in Australia, sowed the seeds of its cricketing legacy as far back as 1804 when the Sydney Gazette first mentioned the sport; long before Melbourne was founded in 1835.

Since then the state has been the pride of cricket in Australia winning the iconic Sheffield Shield a whopping 46 times. For the majority indocentric cricket fans, New South Wales is the ‘Mumbai’ equivalent of Australia.

The state’s cricketing influence has spread far and wide over the years. From as North as Bellingen where Adam Gilchrist took to cricket, to as south as Bowral, a town now famous for its most famous son, Sir Don Bradman, to as far as the interiors of the state in Dubbo and Narromine, which produced the leanest meanest and finest pacer — Glenn McGrath.

Even the late Phil Hughes, who tragically died at the SCG while playing for his adopted team, South Australia, had his earliest cricketing moorings in Macksville, New South Wales.

The Sydney Grade Cricket competition is widely regarded as one of the best of its kind in the country, providing a glimpse of the talent that is likely to walk through the corridors of the SCG.

Given the pervasiveness of cricket’s success in the state, it is no wonder that a recent Cricket Australia census taken last year revealed more people partake in cricket in New South Wales than in any other Australian state.

Such is the state’s cricketing prowess, that New South Welshmen account for eight of the current 18 Cricket Australia central contracts for the national team.

While recently celebrating their fifth world title with fans at Melbourne’s iconic Federation Square, Robert Doyle,Lord Mayor of Melbourne,made a contrived shout-out to the Victorian members in the World Cup winning squad. Noble gesture in front of a Melbourne crowd, except for one thing, in a fifteen man squad there were just two — Glenn Maxwell and Aaron Finch. It’s no wonder that their more influential New South Welshman in Michael Clarke, Steve Smith, Brad Haddin,David Warner, Shane Watson and Mitchell Starc cheekily smiled. Embarrassingly even Tasmania had a higher representation than Victoria for the Baggy Greens.

The Victorian representation has dwindled over the years in such a disappointing fashion that Chris Rogers was the only Victorian in the side in the last Boxing Day test match against India. This despite the fact he was born in New South Wales and raised in Western Australia.

Recent stats reveal, in the past two years, Victoria has had 13 cricketers play for Australia across all formats, but only five have gone on to play the longest format of the game. It’s no wonder that an op-ed in Australia facetiously remarked that a Boxing Day Test featured more Victorians holding a microphone in the commentary box than a bat or ball on the field.

There hasn’t been a remedy to this, partially since you don’t feel there is an ailment to cure when the national side is doing well, so why worry about an underperforming region? Perhaps so, but being the inquisitive interlocutor, I pointed this out to my editor, a Sydneysider through and through. He said Melbourne and Victoria’s obsession with Aussie Rules Football (AFL) sees a large talent pool diverted to taking up that sport over cricket. Hence Victoria finds it harder to compete with New South Wales in this regard.

Given Aussie Rules Football was invented in Melbourne, Victoria’s sporting pride may lie in the winter months when ‘footie’ takes precedence and cricket goes into slumber mode. Apparently back in the day, Victorians would balance their time between footie and cricket.

They would don the whites from October to March and then hang up the cricket boots to wear their footie ones from April to September. Given the rigour of the schedules and the demands of professional sport, most young Victorians are now left for choice, and opt for AFL over cricket.

At the grassroots level, the presence of more teams and more places in each side is an alluring prospect over limited positions in club and domestic cricket.

But Cricket Australia chairman Wally Edwards pointed out otherwise, stating that there were indeed more cricketers than footballers at the grassroots level in Victoria.

It’s funny that Melbourne’s most iconic cricket day in the calendar, the Boxing Day was originally an annual Victoria-New South Wales Shield game. And should the Boxing Day test in 2015 feature an Australia side sans Victorian players, safe to say New South Wales would claim to have won that contest.

So where does Australia’s cricket crown truly lie, Melbourne and Victoria or Sydney and New South Wales? Well I’ll leave that to the Melbournians and Sydneysiders to slug it out and what a contest it shall be.

 

(AkshobhGiridharadas is a 27-year old sports journalist currently plying his trade at Channel NewsAsia Singapore, and has previously worked at ESPN Star, Singapore. Akshobh’s journey with sports journalism started after having inadvertently stumbled into the auditions of Dream Job, season 2 – ESPN STAR Sports hunt for the next HarshaBhogle. Akshobh has a Masters degree in journalism and has covered the Indian Cricket League & the Indian Premier League as a sports correspondent)