For singer-songwriter, veteran park cricketer and Melbourne Demons diehard David Bridie, it’s the gatherings of the cohorts and generations in the carpark and on Boxing day the sense of all being on the same side for once. It’s the burst of noise from inside the ground, quickening your stride if you’re late.
There’s also the depth of field. Even the best TV technology can’t quite capture it. “The MCG always feels a much more vast playing space for cricket than footy,” Bridie said. “Then there’s the angles. The drive that splits cover and extra cover, the short pass through traffic … watching so much sport on TV this year, that’s what I’ve really missed, the angles.”
For all, it’s the rise and fall of the crowd’s voice, the un-muting of sport after nearly a year of watching it in a vacuum. For many on Boxing Day, the glow of Christmas still upon them, it’s the bars. They have changed names and atmosphere as the stadium has changed shape, but their essence does not change, except perhaps to have become a bit less riotous. Bullring once, now Blazer and Beames, each with its own cohort, names for shouting.
The Long Room aside, perhaps the most famous was the long-gone Mezzanine. Former cricket writer and 50-year MCC member Ken Davis remembers with fondness the way it was canted to look over the bowler’s shoulder, the umbrellas to shield out pigeon droppings and how legendary commentators Alan McGilvray and Lindsay Hassett could reliably be found there each 11.25am, immediately after their first on-air stint. Invariably, later in the day, there was Keith Miller. May they all rest in peace.
Davis spent the first day of his honeymoon in the Mezzanine, the day Australian opener Rick McCosker had his jaw broken in the Centenary Test. He’s been back every year since. Sally, his wife, never has.
There’ll be no gatherings in the bars this year; COVID protocols forbid it. The fact that they will be open for service is enough for now. The part crowd partly living the MCG experience will be symbolic of a community part-way back to normality. The hollow of the MCG has been the hollow in all our hearts.
Not even in wartime has the stadium previously been abandoned for so long. In World War One, there was no cricket, not even club, and no VFL footy except for finals (Melbourne sat out for three years), but there was school sport, athletic carnivals, war fundraisers, patriotic rallies and memorials. Pre Shrine of Remembrance, the first memorial to the war dead – in the shape of a broken column – was raised at the MCG in 1916, and the next year, 75,000 attended a pro-conscription rally there.
“The difference between then and now,” said the MCG’s deputy librarian Trevor Ruddell, “is that even during wartime large gatherings were encouraged, and these were regularly held at the MCG.”
In World War Two, there was a different crowd. All cricket was suspended again and footy evicted (Melbourne to share with Richmond at Punt Rd) as the Federal government commandeered the stadium. It became barracks for the RAAF, the US Marines and the US Army Air Force, quartering more than 200,000 men over the course, who used the hallowed turf for softball, gridiron and a gridiron/Aussie rules hybrid. Then as now, the ‘G was strictly out of bounds to all its usual habitues, except one: curator Bert Luttrell. Near war’s end, he was made a Sergeant Major in the Marines.
That day to this year, the ‘G was again the year-round place to locate Melbourne’s pulse. Last March, more than 86,000 came one Sunday evening to watch Australia win the women’s T20 World Cup and the stadium shook. Three days later, the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic, and the people’s ground became the people-less ground and then a ghost ground.
As weeks stretched into months, it wasn’t that absence made the heart grow fonder, rather that it was the absence in our hearts, monumentalised. When the AFL season was postponed for 11 weeks, Collingwood footballer Jordan Roughead, who lives nearby, would run laps of the outside the MCG with his dogs, peering longingly through shuttered grills at the inner emptiness.
That’s the ‘G for you. McGuire’s take is that Sydney’s famous harbour, spectacular as it is, divides the city, whereas Melbourne coalesces around the MCG. He also notes that the sheer size of the stadium means that its “people’s ground” boast is not idle.
“There are two elite reserves [MCC and AFL] yet room for all,” he said. “Bluebloods on one side, knockabouts on the other. Everyone has their place, everyone loves their place.” When he watched from Bay 13, they called the other side of the ground “the dark side”. By late afternoon, winter and summer, it was both a sociological and physical reality. It still is.
Normal service doesn’t resume on Boxing Day. It’s more like MCG-lite. But it may be followed by a second Australia-India MCG Test, with more people, in the new year if authorities cannot be convinced about Sydney’s viability. Meantime, the 2021 AFL fixture was announced this week, and the MCC was quick to point out that there will be 46 MCG games. Boxing Day at the ‘G creates a hopefully not too fanciful sense that Melbourne is getting its mojo back. Said McGuire, channelling the late Lou Richards: “By golly, we’ve been looking forward to this one.”
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.