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A tour of Melbourne’s MCG and National Sports Museum

The MCG moved to its present site in 1853. Photo: Angela WylieShane Warne sledges me in the middle of the MCG. “Still can’t hit the ball,” he says. And it’s true.
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On an emerald field of dreams, before a full house – a city in a cauldron, braying with the bowler – I’m overwhelmed. Fielders encroach. Palms turn sweaty. The ball whizzes by the outside edge. A backyard cricketer’s fantasy – two overs facing Warnie at the “G” – and I swing and miss. Then for my troubles, he mocks.

Mind you, it’s not the real Shane Warne.

If it’s true that sport is played mostly in the head, then the latest attraction at the National Sports Museum, deep in the catacombs of Australia’s most revered sporting stadium, is a mind-blow. Called “King of Spin”, it involves a plastic cricket bat, a virtual reality headset, and 360-degrees of cricketing nirvana. If you can hit the “ball”.

Twenty-two yards of make-believe and here’s the mystique of the Melbourne Cricket Ground – a national gathering place, a shared story, a cathedral of belonging – the largest sporting stadium in Australia and one of the world’s most fabled.

Lords is home to cricket, La Bombonera (“the chocolate box”) in Buenos Aires harbours more fanaticism, the old Yankee Stadium was a national metaphor, and Wembley and Wimbledon shine more often in a brighter spotlight, but only one sports stadium has come to be known by a single letter.

The G.

It’s where Ron Clarke lit the torch; where Betty Cuthbert sprinted down the straight, mouth agape, into a nation’s hearts as our first Golden Girl of athletics; where Rick McCosker was felled and Dennis Lillee skittled wickets and debutante David Hookes flayed the English captain in the 1977 Centenary Test; where US evangelist Billy Graham preached to a crowd nobody could number; and where a self-made game of winter football became a pagan rite.

“It’s a place of wonderful diversions,” says Paul Wilhelm, 69, a volunteer stadium tour guide, dapper in his Melbourne Cricket Club blazer; a member for 54 years.

“It feels like a home for so many. It’s a stadium that in sporting circles puts Melbourne on the world map.”

“The MCG is a shrine, a citadel, a landmark, a totem,” says Greg Baum, a cricket and football writer for Fairfax Media. “It is to this city what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Statue of Liberty is to New York. It symbolises Melbourne to the world. It inspires reverence.”

Partly, the spectacle is in the numbers: a 100,024 capacity, a metropolis around a paddock, the 12th-largest stadium in the world. Crowds have been bigger still.

About 130,000 came in March 1959 when Billy Graham held court. A record 121,696 turned up for the 1970 Victorian Football League Grand Final, a classic befitting its attendance. The 1956 Olympic Games opening ceremony filled 107,000 seats.

When five Melbourne gentlemen in 1838 each paid a one-guinea subscription (full adult annual membership is now $642, after a 25-year wait list) to form a cricket club, they couldn’t have had any idea. In 1853, it moved to its present site, a hollow in the old Police Paddock – “a lovely piece of bushland” – where the country’s oldest sporting club now manages what’s considered the heartbeat of a sporting capital.

“This is just one version of many MCGs,” says Helen Walpole, curator of the National Sports Museum. “It’s now an architectural doughnut, but with the hole the important part. That beautiful turf in the middle, so lovingly tended, links so much history.”

On a guided MCG tour, ushered onto the hallowed ground – a baize of couch and rye, imbued with memories – the scale of the arena’s colossal bowl is realised. Completed in 2006, its tiered stadiums mirror a city’s sporting obsession. “I reckon in Melbourne people would come and watch the grass grow,” says Paul Wilkinson, 64, visiting from Adelaide, via England.

Last year, more than 150,000 took the tour or visited the sports museum, about 20 per cent of those tourists from abroad, mostly from England and India. Add patrons at sporting events, and it was more than 3.5 million visitors who clicked through the turnstiles.

“It’s Melbourne’s meeting place, Australia’s symbolic backyard,” says MCC librarian, David Studham. “In many ways it’s analogous to the great cathedrals of old in European civilisations, where a community gathers to celebrate or mourn.”

Much of this is explained on the daily tours, and thoughtfully considered in the engaging National Sports Museum. Housing more than 3500 items – from Don Bradman’s baggy green (and those of 22 other players), to the Malvern Star bicycle used by Hubert Opperman in his record-breaking 24-hour marathon ride in Sydney in 1940 – it’s a full day’s outing for even the most casual of sports fans.

Australia’s only multi-sport museum, its collection interprets the social significance of sport in an outdoor society through both nation-defining feats and grass-roots participation. “Australians have always played games and shared in those sporting moments that put us on the world stage,” says Walpole. “These are the shared memories of the imaginary grandstand.”

The breadth of its display, and the context, make for a stimulating inquiry. Where to begin? With the bicycle Cadel Evans rode on the final day of the 2011 Tour de France – raising it in triumph before the Arc de Triomphe – or a photographic display of make-do cricket wickets (rubbish bins, buckets, wooden boxes, milk crates, sticks), the museum traces the ways sport has helped defined and shape the national psyche.

Of all exhibits, Walpole says a cloth sash with magenta and black stripes is her favourite. It’s a fragment of uniform from the 1880 Australian cricket tour of England and is thought to be the oldest piece of Australian sporting uniform in existence.

“We identify so tightly with green and gold, but these cricketers went off and represented Australia in what is essentially hot pink,” she says.

But it’s Shane Warne, again, who’s the crowd favourite. In a 15-minute holograph show, Cricket Found Me – a locker-room talk by the master of spin on the highs and lows of his playing days – he disarms any prejudice with his happy-go-lucky candour. In a darkened theatrette, his image all smoke and mirrors, his performance is as beguiling as his famous first Test ball on English soil. No wonder the bloke from Upper Ferntree Gully, then the St Kilda Cricket Club, was Australian sporting royalty.

For him, the glorious oval outside has always been close to his heart. “The MCG was my backyard,” he says. “It’s a place where anything can happen.” TRIP NOTESMORE INFORMATION

See mcg.org备案老域名GETTING THERE

From Federation Square, the MCG is a scenic 20-minute walk via William Barak Bridge. Alternately, catch a train to Richmond or Jolimont stations or a tram (routes 75, 48 or 70) and approach from one of Yarra Park’s many walking avenues. GETTING IN

The National Sports Museum, inside Gate 3 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, is open 10am-5pm daily (except during event days). The 75-minute MCG Tours depart every half-hour from 10am-3pm, daily. Bookings suggested. Package entry to both is $30 adult, $24 concession, $15 child (5-15), $70 family. For details, see nsm.org备案老域名

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