The Empty Coliseum

Posted on November 16, 2014

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By SB Tang

I wrote a piece for The Guardian‘s Away Days series about watching Victoria play New South Wales in Shield game at the G.

The Guardian kindly gave me permission to publish the full 3233 word version of my piece on my personal blog. So here it is:

*****

The Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It’s every cricketer’s dream to play there on the biggest, grandest stage in the cricketing world in front of 100,000 spectators in the biggest annual match on the global cricketing calendar. But, for most of the MCG’s 160-year history, that dream, which now fills the hearts and minds of millions of young men and women across four continents, did not exist — because Boxing Day at the MCG was reserved for the annual first-class match between Victoria and New South Wales. Victoria first played New South Wales in a first-class match at the MCG on 26 March 1856, when the ground itself was less than two years old. By 1865, the annual fixture had found its blockbuster home on Boxing Day.

By the time the Earl of Sheffield made, in the words of Australia’s third Test captain, Tom Horan (writing in The Australasian under his nom de plume of Felix), his “gracious gift” in 1892 of “a magnificent trophy” to be presented to the winners of “the [annual] triangular intercolonial [first-class cricket] contest” between Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, the annual Boxing Day match at the MCG between Victoria and New South Wales had already acquired “time-honoured” status.

The 1892 Boxing Day Shield game lasted five days and attracted a total crowd of approximately 48,067 people which equates to 9,613 people per day. Thus, when Horan wrote of “the vast concourse of spectators”, his tongue was nowhere near the vicinity of his cheek. And healthy Boxing Day Shield crowds were not some 19th century, pre-Federation phenomenon. They continued well into the 1960s and ’70s with a total of 28,693 people attending the four-day 1969 Boxing Day Shield game at the MCG. That’s an average of 7,173 people per day.

Nineteen seventy seven was the last year in which the Victoria versus New South Wales Shield game was played on Boxing Day at the MCG. The match lasted three days and attracted a total crowd of 11,430 — an average of 3,810 per day. Here are the average per day crowd figures for the marquee Victoria versus New South Wales Shield game in the seasons that followed its loss of the Boxing Day fixture date: 2,132 (1978–79 season); 1,507 (1979–80 season); 1,592 (1980–81 season); 417 (1981–82 season in which the game was played in St Kilda instead of its usual place at the MCG); 844 (1982–83 season); and 472 (1983–84 season).

It seems reasonable to posit that this clear, immediate and growing decrease in crowd numbers was at least partially caused by the game’s loss of the Boxing Day fixture date. The other likely operative causes were the increased frequency of Test cricket in home summers from 1973 onwards — prior to 1973, Test teams did not tour Australia every summer, therefore, in many home summers, the highest-standard cricket on offer was Shield cricket — and the MCG Test’s move to the prime Boxing Day fixture date in the early ’80s, both of which combined to stimulate greater public access to, and focus upon, Test cricket.

Last summer, the Victoria versus New South Wales Shield game at the MCG was played in early November. The average per day crowd figure was a paltry 527. By contrast, 91,112 people attended the first day alone of last summer’s Boxing Day Ashes Test.

This summer, the Victoria versus New South Wales Shield game at the MCG is again played in early November. The match starts on a Friday in bright sunshine underneath a clear blue sky. I am fortunate enough to be there for three of the four days of what turns out to be an absorbing match. (I was absent on Saturday because I was playing club cricket.) Full disclosure: I’m Victorian and I love watching Shield cricket. I firmly believe that, in some respects, the experience of watching Shield cricket at the G is qualitatively better than the experience of watching Test cricket here.

When I later tell some friends with a passing interest in cricket that I recently spent three days watching Shield cricket at the G, their universal response is: “gee, it must be weird watching a game in an empty G.” Actually, it’s not as weird as you’d think. Although, from certain angles, the G looks empty during Shield games, it certainly doesn’t feel empty. Indeed, one feels closer to the game and the men who play it than one does during Boxing Day Test matches — there is an intimacy, a closeness that is unavoidably absent when the G is packed with 80,000 plus people.

Much of this intimacy is aural. In the vast echo chamber of an empty G, one can hear almost every word that is shouted out by the members of the sparse crowd who are restricted to sitting at just one end of the ground. Even the sound of native birds squawking — in Australia, birds don’t chirp, they squawk — is clearly audible. When cries of “have a go!” start ringing out after the New South Wales openers, trying to save the game, block their way to 0/35 off the first 15 overs of their second innings, I am almost certain that they can hear them. By contrast, during a Boxing Day Test, apart from the utterances of those seated within your immediate vicinity, the only crowd sounds that one can hear are indistinct murmurs, claps and roars.

The composition of the crowd at Shield games helps create intimacy too. It’s not what you’d expect. Yes, there are some elderly gentlemen in straw hats armed with binoculars, but the majority of the crowd consists of casually-dressed young people — groups of mates from suburban cricket clubs, couples, individuals, and, especially on the Sunday of the most recent Shield game I attended at the G, loads of young families with kids under the age of 12. Singlets, shorts, thongs and baseball caps are in abundance.

On the first day of this season’s Shield game against New South Wales at the G, there’s a sizeable contingent, decked out in training gear, from Ringwood Cricket Club, here to see their 24-year-old first-grade run machine David King make his first-class debut, having earned his opportunity at Shield level through old-fashioned sheer weight of runs — he’s been averaging 114.67 for Ringwood in first-grade this season and got a ton for the Victorian second XI to boot.

The plenitude of seating space in the Olympic Stand allows the young patrons to prop their feet up comfortably on the empty chairs in front of them, a luxury that many are happy to make full use of. Some do so whilst catching up on some reading in book, tablet or laptop form. You’d be pleasantly surprised by the number of women present too. Some are present as part of young couples and/or families, but there are also small groups of young women enjoying a pleasant, sunny day’s out at the cricket.

At a Boxing Day Test, the practical reality is that the majority of spectators do not get seats straight behind or straight in front of the wicket, therefore, it is impossible for them to see lateral ball movement and, if one happens to be seated particularly square of the wicket, it can even be difficult to tell what shot a batsman has attempted when he’s played and missed. By contrast, at a Shield game, the open stands — the Olympic and Members’ — are located roughly straight behind the wicket and the knowledgeable crowd gathers as close as possible to the sightscreen so as to afford themselves the best possible view of the game. They are able to see minute variations in the quick bowlers’ seam and swing movement and the spinners’ drift and turn.

And, if you happen to take your kids to a Shield game at the G on the weekends, there’s a real chance that they’ll get the opportunity to play on the outfield of the G itself. On the Sunday (day three) of this season’s Shield game against New South Wales at the G, I saw a healthy number of under-12 kids playing cricket on the flawless outfield during the lunchbreak. They were loving it. The kids were a mixture of blind cricketers (given the opportunity to play on the G through Cricket Victoria’s terrific Harmony in Cricket program) and, believe it or not, kids picked from the crowd to make up the numbers.

A Shield game at the G might just be the best value day out available for a family in Melbourne today. A public child/concession ticket for a Shield game at the G costs $2. A public adult ticket costs $5. A public family ticket, which admits two adults and two children, costs $12. That equates to $3 per person which is less than the price of a coffee in Melbourne. By way of comparison, an adult movie ticket in Melbourne now costs $20 and a child’s movie ticket costs $15. For the first day of this summer’s Boxing Day Test, the cheapest public adult ticket will set you back $40, the cheapest child’s ticket $14, and the cheapest family ticket $87.

If that’s still not enough to convince you, then consider this: a Shield game at the G is also one of the healthiest and most convenient days out available for a family. The G is easily reachable by public transport. If you prefer driving then, unlike during the Boxing Day Test, parking is plentiful during Shield games. If, as they are wont to do, the kids get a bit bored watching the Shield game inside the G, then you can, like I saw so many young families do, take them outside to the empty parkland surrounding the G to play (cricket, preferably).

You don’t even have to worry about your smartphone running out of battery. I can let you in on a little-known convenience facility located inside the Olympic Stand that is available to the public during Shield games — the Jim Stynes Room, a glass-fronted indoor viewing area complete with cushioned seats and power sockets where patrons can recharge their phones whilst not missing a single ball bowled.

The G has never looked in better condition in my lifetime. On the Sunday of the Shield game, I wander down to the Members’ Stand seat nearest the sightscreen — seat number 12 in case you’re wondering — to see the ground up close. So perfect is the green grass of the outfield that I can barely distinguish it from the artificial grass that surrounds the perimeter of the ground just inside the fence. The only visible clue is the difference in colour — the artificial grass is a slightly lighter shade of green. The pitch, as players from both sides tell the press pack (numbering a grand total of three people, including myself) after every day’s play, is hard, fast and true.

The players themselves are happy to be here in this beautiful empty coliseum. As the New South Wales stalwart Ben Rohrer told us outside the visitors’ dressing room after the first day’s play: “It’s always great to play here, it’s a fantastic stadium. It’s looking an absolute picture at the moment, that outfield’s fantastic so every time you get a chance to walk out there it’s a great day so I enjoy spending as much time as I can out there.” His tone is one of sincerity and gratitude. When, a week later, the G is used for a T20 international between Australia and South Africa, the Channel Nine commentary team (composed predominantly of non-Victorians) are equally impressed with the state of the ground.

Such heartfelt praise for the G from those north of the Murray was not always such a common occurrence. John Benaud, a former New South Wales Shield captain who later became an Australian selector, referred to the MCG as “that huge grey concrete, soulless stadium”. For good measure, he also repeatedly referred to Melbourne as “Bleak City” and devoted an entire chapter of his 1997 book, Matters of Choice: A Test Selector’s Story, to defending the decision (to which he was party as an Australian selector) to terminate the Victorian hero Dean Jones’s Test career in November 1992 despite Jones averaging 55.20 in Australia’s preceding Test series.

*****

This season’s Victoria versus New South Wales Shield match at the G turns out to be a stereotypically Australian (in a good way) game of cricket. The pitch is hard, fast and true, but offers turn for a good wrist-spinner from day one. The winning side, armed with a battery of quick bowlers, makes consistent and excellent use of aggressive short-pitched bowling, and are no less aggressive with the bat, scoring their runs much more quickly than their opponents. The winning side field better and pick a wrist-spinner who takes a crucial bag of wickets for them whilst their opponent’s finger spinners go wicketless.

The winning side was Victoria. In New South Wales’s defence, the team that they were forced to field was practically a second XI — they had 12 players missing due to international duty, whereas Victoria only had three players missing due to international duty. That is simply a statement of fact, not an attempt to any in any way diminish Victoria’s achievement in defeating the defending Shield champions — Victoria outplayed New South Wales on every day of the game in every facet of the game.

There were two critical periods in the absorbing match. The first occurred just before tea on day one when New South Wales, having been sent into bat on a good wicket, were in the solid position of 2/129 with their two young left-handers at the crease, Kurtis Patterson and Scott Henry, looking comfortable, having built an unbeaten 99 run partnership. The still just 21-year-old Patterson, the youngest centurion in Sheffield Shield history, was looking nailed on to score his second first-class hundred, using his feet well to the Victorian spinners and driving the ball with timing that Mark Waugh — watching on from a vacant radio commentary box in his capacity as the Australian selector on duty — would’ve been proud to call his own. Then, on 53, Patterson moved back to fiercely cut a Fawad Ahmed stock leg-break delivered from around the wicket. The ball flied off a thick outside edge and David Hussey, standing at first slip, stuck his non-preferred left-hand out at full stretch and held onto the catch. Patterson walked off, swinging his bat in disappointment. He knew that a hundred and an imposing first-innings New South Wales total were there for the taking.

Shortly after tea, Henry is bowled for 63 attempting to dispatch a shortish Ahmed stock ball that almost qualifies as a long-hop to the mid-wicket boundary. New South Wales collapsed to 8/266 at the close of day one. The 25-year-old Victorian fast bowler Scott Boland is immense in that final evening session on day one, taking six wickets towards the end of a long hot day on a good pitch through a potent combination of Glenn-McGrath-style line-and-length and Merv-Hughes-esque bustling pace. A brave 89-run last wicket stand the following morning between the Victorian born-and-raised New South Wales captain, Peter Nevill, and the New South Wales number 11 Josh Hazlewood takes New South Wales’s first innings total to 366, but that was never going to be enough on a good batting strip.

The second critical period in the match was the morning session on the final day. Close to a thousand runs had been scored on the first three days for the loss of just 17 wickets. New South Wales started the final day on 2/106, just 35 runs behind Victoria’s first-innings total of 5/507 declared. The likely result appeared to be a draw — Victoria needed eight wickets in a day, plus some runs to get the win. However, Victoria, through a combination of hostile, short-pitched fast bowling, quality leg-spin and attacking captaincy, managed to take seven New South Welsh wickets — one New South Wales batsman, Ben Rohrer, was unable to bat after being hit on the head by a Chris Tremain bouncer — in the space of a session and a bit, leaving the Victorian batsmen the paltry target of 131 for victory which they polished off in the space of just 21.2 overs for the loss of one wicket. Tremain, a 23-year-old fast bowler hailing from the tiny village of Yeoval (population: 426) in central New South Wales who was making his Shield debut for Victoria, was particularly impressive on the final day, taking three New South Welsh wickets with the kind of brute force, fast, short-pitched bowling that Mitchell Johnson has brought back into vogue.

Watching this Shield match, Mark Waugh can only have concluded that Australia’s fast-bowling stocks remain as healthy as ever — in addition to the Victorian pace attack, the two young New South Welsh quicks, Josh Hazlewood and Gurinder Sandhu performed well in a losing cause — but the New South Wales spin cupboard looked empty. New South Wales handed Shield debuts to a pair of 30-year-old finger spinners, Patrick Jackson and William Somerville, who combined for match figures of 0/209, serving up a delectable feast of darts, long-hops and full tosses to the ravenous Victorian batsmen. It was hard to fathom how either of them was picked over Luke Doran.

The small but knowledgeable G crowd did not fail to notice Jackson and Somerville. After Victoria had carved their way to 1/81 off just 14 overs in their final innings pursuit of 131 for victory, someone in the crowd yelled out: “give Somerville a bowl!” Incredibly, a few minutes later, New South Wales really did give Somerville a bowl. Marcus Stoinis promptly reverse-swept him for four.

The crowd is vocal throughout the match. In that respect, nothing much has changed since 1892. Although parochially Victorian — cries of “c’mon Victoria” could be heard periodically throughout the match — the crowd was, shall we say, even-handed in their critique of the play. When Ryan Carters cut the first ball of a John Hastings spell for four, a punter quickly yelled: “get him off!” After Scott Boland lost his run-up a few times on the final morning, someone (harshly) yelled: “c’mon mate, short run up!” To be fair, a few seconds later, Boland received a more appropriately supportive response from another member of the Victorian crowd who cried out: “It’s alright mate.”

*****

Last Monday, I watched as the sun set on the G on the final evening of a Victoria versus New South Wales Shield game. As word of Victoria’s impending 9-wicket win spread, more and more people, especially kids, streamed into the ground. It was a beautiful sight. Then, when Victoria reached 1/124, just seven runs from victory, I heard the rhythmic, sing-song chant heard in every Australian schoolyard in support of the singer’s team of choice: “let’s go Victoria let’s go, [clap clap], let’s go Victoria let’s go, [clap clap]”.

One day soon, if all goes to plan, the Victorian cricket team will leave the G for a new permanent, state-of-the-art home at Junction Oval. It is the right move for Victorian and Australian cricket, but I, for one, will miss Shield games at the G. If you, like Taylor Swift, have publicly declared that you “love the cricket”, then I’d urge you to sample the unique, tranquil pleasure of a Shield game at the G before it’s too late.

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