As a football-obsessed little girl, way back when the AFL was the VFL and games were played on winter Saturday afternoons, I’d lie on my bed at my family’s rural Victorian pub with a crackly transistor next to the pillow and a Mastermind-level knowledge of every Tigers player, his number and the position he played. I’d hear the game on the radio and see every move like a flickering set of footy cards. My Uncle Alec, a family friend who’d convinced me to be the lone Tiger in a family of Bulldogs, promised that if our team ever made the Grand Final, he’d take me to the MCG to see it. They did. And he didn’t. I’ve never fully recovered.
To sports-loving Victorians (isn’t that all of them?), the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the MCG, is the Colosseum, Lord’s, Yankee Stadium and Disneyland all rolled into an arena so beloved it’s been given the ultimate Australian nod: a contraction. It’s simply the ’G.
Since it opened its gates in 1853 – just 18 years after Melbourne was founded – the ground has witnessed epic battles between Lions and Tigers, Dogs and Cats. Even Saints and Demons. It draws hordes carrying blankets, baskets, vacuum flasks, ham sandwiches and hope, many dressed in the colours of the gladiators they’ve come to urge on as the winter chill tingles their beanie-topped faces and clouds their shouts in vapour.
But football’s not the only show in town (the clue is in this icon’s middle name) and when the skies turn blue, hearts and minds turn baggy green for a cherished festive-season tradition known as the Boxing Day Test. Over five days, cricket-lovers from around the country – and the world – converge like an invading force to watch our finest team take on their international rivals.
The ’G has welcomed the world’s best athletes, created Olympic legends, broken some hearts and filled others with unbridled joy.
It has unleashed rock’n’roll – David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and Madonna all played to packed houses – orchestrated pomp for the Queen and harnessed religion, hosting both the Pope and evangelist Billy Graham, a man who reportedly preached the gospel to more people, in person, than anyone in the history of Christianity. It has embraced the so-called Barmy Army, whose choral support of the touring English cricket team has become an unofficial soundtrack of Ashes-series summer days.
I eventually got to a Grand Final at the ’G. It was 1989 and 94,795 other people had the same idea. The team I’d worshipped wasn’t playing but, ironically, God was (it’s the nickname fans bestowed on prodigiously talented Geelong forward Gary Ablett, who kicked nine goals that incredible day). As a mullet-haired John Farnham warmed up the crowd with Waltzing Matilda, people waved their respective team flags and sang along, a congregation united in the love of sport and electrified by the battle that was about to unfold.
You can read about the thrill of an MCG Grand Final and today you can watch every kick and skirmish and hear every dud note sung by the pre-match entertainers live in your living room. But nothing – nothing – comes close to being inside that cauldron and the sound of the siren that, wherever in the world they hear it, takes Australians home.
That match – Hawthorn won in a nail-biter – is widely considered one of the best Grand Finals ever played. Take that, Uncle Alec.