It’s Boxing Day, and my Uber driver picks me up and tries to guess my destination: the sales or the cricket.
In Melbourne, there’s only two places to be.
“Have you driven many people to the cricket today?”
“Only half a thousand,” he replies. He drops me on Wellington Parade and there it is – the Melbourne Cricket Ground, a cloudless summer’s day, and Australia batting.
Much has been written by journalists from all sporting codes about that walk towards the MCG on the day of a big match, how there is a distinct and heightened atmosphere – a lovely lather of anticipation, community and joy. Veteran cricket writer Greg Baum put it well in that day’s Age when writing about whether the Boxing Day Test has a pulse: “It’s alive on the walk to the ground on Boxing Day morning, the great convergence of all types from all points in all dress codes.”
I walk towards the ground behind an English father and son, both wearing Arsenal jerseys. At the ticket booth someone had smeared and dripped kebab parts on the customer side of the counter. This is not starting well. The interior of the MCG is like a medieval fort city – warrens and corridors, public houses, flags and people in chain mail with swords (more of that later). The oval in the middle is bright green, and so brilliant it is its own source of light. Staring at it too long is like looking at the sun.
It’s easy to get lost – and so I do.
“Hold that elevator.” It’s an Englishman emerging from one of the private dining rooms on level 3. He’s wearing a grey suit, dressed as if for a funeral. He’s also so drunk he cannot push the button – and it’s not even midday (no judgment!). We walk together for a bit. He thinks it’s hilarious that I’m here to write about the cricket but am lost inside the MCG. He doesn’t know whether to flirt or fight; the Aussies are “bastards, convicts”, and he’s spent all this money to come here and England are losing, and it’s the worst, but it’s also “the best, it’s marvellous because I am with my friends, drinking beer in the sun”.
“Are you having a good time?”
“No. Yes. Of course.” He ambles off.
It’s my first time seeing Australia v England at a Boxing Day Test at the MCG.
Some people are cricket people – put them in front of anything: Big Bash, a one-day match, a Test, Colts – and they are in clover. I am not one of them. But like many Australians, I experience cricket not as an activity but as a sort of atmosphere or frequency – something that’s been around me since birth, hanging in the summertime air, like the smell of sunscreen, like the promise of flies.
It’s long, hot car trips with the Test match on the radio, it’s long rainy days at my grandmother’s house in Geelong playing a boring board game called Test Match where you move your players around a green bit of felt and nothing much happens, except for disputes over your little avatar being LBW. And of course it’s backyard cricket – the violence of a fast ball on your shins, the devastating sound of the ball hitting the bin that you’re using for stumps, the cries from your brothers of “OUT!”, that feeling of the bat – once so settled in your hands, being taken from you – and then an afternoon of exile, fielding.
But being at the MCG for the Boxing Day Test is a treat even if you are only half into it, because everyone else seems only half into it too.
I sit with a friend in the members and we talk for a couple of hours, read magazines and newspapers, have snacks, do about five Mexican waves and watch the cricket. My friend’s dad sums up the slow pace: “Thirty-three runs in 90 minutes.”
I move seats, among older people, families, people dressed in $120 souvenir shirts and children in those weird KFC bucket hats. I’ve not seen such facial expressions since I went to a silent meditation retreat: everyone focused, still, looking ahead with what the meditation teacher called “soft eyes” – a sleepy, twilight look; barbiturates and relaxation tapes on a loop.
But when something happens, it’s as if these drowsy meditators are zapped with a cattle prod. They rise as one. They cheer and boo.
Warner’s out at 99. He walks. We stand. No! He’s back at the crease. We cheer and scream, and then sit back down until he gets his century and the pleasant Test cricket coma descends once more.
I find the Barmy Army – or at least one of its regiments. Their chants are obscure and hard to follow (something about “oars”? Something about “horses?”) They are not dressed for the weather, in their fake chain mail suits and their fake swords (how did all these fake swords get past security?).
The English have lost the Ashes already of course, but beer and sunshine and each other seems to be compensation of sorts. It’s hard to be angry at the Boxing Day Test – the rhythm of the day does not encourage strong emotion.
You’ve got to pace everything, including yourself.
The alternative action is in the bars. One year a friend’s husband saw the first four balls, then went to get a drink and didn’t come back for the rest of day.
This is where Melbourne men (it is mostly men) mix, where old schoolfriends meet every year for a catchup 10 years, 20 years, 40 years down the line. The kind of arrangement some would fly continents not to break, more sacred for them than Christmas Day itself.
I get warned off the Bullring, a dark, windowless bar room that is wall-to-wall blokes in checked shirts. The air is warm and beery, like a burp. We meet instead at Stumps Tavern. Everyone there went to school with everyone else, or else married someone’s sister, or worked with them for a bit at their law firm, or played cricket with their brother-in-law.
I walk past the corporate suites: banks, a chain of dental clinics, a pasta company, and load of “elite” gambling groups with ridiculous names like Elite Gaming VIPs. The suites at the Boxing Day Test, resembling private karaoke booths, are a reward: a contract won, a ton of money spent, business sought. Late in the day their doors hang open and reveal a postprandial slump: lipstick-smeared glasses with the dregs of flat sparkling wine, a hacked-up chunk of brie, dirty plates, everyone’s heads down, on their phones.