The Australian team after their victory over England in the final of the Women's Cricket World Cup

The MCG can be a lonely place. The 1988 World Cup final - which Australia won - was free to attend, yet only 3000 spectators showed up

© Getty Images

Feature

Girls at the G

Crashed minibuses, balls down the drain, lunch with Bradman: a history of 85 years leading up to #FillTheMCG

Raf Nicholson  |  

In January 2014, I took one of the official tours at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was a glorious wade through Australian cricket history. Old photographs and memorabilia were everywhere, and the guide was awash with trivia about the greats of the game - Bradman, Lillee, Warne. When we reached the indoor nets, though, his impeccable knowledge failed him. Someone in our group pointed at a player with a cut shot to die for and asked who she was. He hadn't a clue.

Less than 24 hours later, that same player would make history on the hallowed turf at "the G", leading her side out in an ODI against England to become, at age 21, the youngest captain of Australia, male or female. She was a Victorian who had represented the state for the previous five years. And yet, as a female cricketer, her place in the annals of the MCG remained obscure.

Should all go to plan, Meghann Moira Lanning (for that, of course, was the player in the nets) will again lead her team out at the MCG in a few weeks' time - this time for the final of the Women's T20 World Cup. And a concerted campaign is afoot: to #FillTheMCG on March 8, International Women's Day, and break the world record for the largest crowd ever at a women's sporting event.

Is it possible? And what would that mean for women's cricket?

There have been, to date, 15 women's internationals played at the MCG - two Tests, six ODIs and seven T20Is (as against 112 Tests, 149 ODIs and 13 T20Is for men). Women first played an international match at the ground way back in January 1935, during the first women's cricket tour ever - England in Australia, 1934-35.

That game appears to have been fairly straightforward to arrange: the Victorian Women's Cricket Association wrote to the Melbourne Cricket Club for permission to use the ground, and the club secretary, Hugh Trumble, wrote back agreeing to make the ground available for the two-day warm-up game against Victoria, and for the third Test match. The men of Melbourne thus showed themselves to be rather more progressive than their English counterparts, the Marylebone Cricket Club, who refused to permit a women's match at Lord's until 1976.

If only men play at the home of Australian cricket, cricket comes to be viewed as a male pursuit; tour guides learn to tell a story in which women are notable only by their absence

"We were shown over the pavilion and introduced to some well known ex-cricketers and then to lunch," wrote one of the England players on that 1934-35 tour, Grace Morgan, in her tour diary. "Ponsford, Kelly, Rigg, Fleetwood-Smith, Ebeling, and Hugh Trumble were there and sat among us, being very friendly, and afterwards taking us out to the wicket and practice nets and telling us about them. Our dressing room is the same one that Hobbs, Sutcliffe and Co used when they were over here, and we felt honoured in that we were the first women to be allowed in certain parts of the pavilion which are regarded practically as 'hallowed ground'."

The Test itself was drawn, but the women left their mark: Australia's Peggy Antonio took 6 for 49 with her spin bowling, figures marked on the honours board in the home changing room.

England returned to the MCG for another Test during their second visit to Australia, in 1948-49. Again, the result was a draw. Betty Wilson, who hit 107 runs and took six wickets in the match, later recalled that the wicket was so hard that the spikes were pushed through her cricket boots when she ran in to bowl; she had to leave the field and change into a spike-less pair. On the second day of the match, England batter Molly Hide drove the ball down the ground and it passed through the fence and disappeared into a drain: the cover was not big enough to stop the passage of the smaller, five-ounce women's ball. Once again, though, the England team were made to feel well at home, enjoying lunch at the ground with the newly knighted Don Bradman.

Was a women's Test at the MCG, then, becoming a regular fixture? Apparently not. The England team next returned to Australian shores nearly a decade later, in 1957-58, but they did not set foot inside the G. They played the Melbourne Test at the suburban Junction Oval, in St Kilda (capacity 7000). By the time of England's 1984-85 tour, women's Tests were being played at the WACA, the Gabba and Adelaide Oval, but the MCG remained firmly absent from the venue list.

The England women's Test team, seen here at St Pancras station, London, before leaving for their 1934-35 tour of Australia, played to a crowd of 13,000 at the G

The England women's Test team, seen here at St Pancras station, London, before leaving for their 1934-35 tour of Australia, played to a crowd of 13,000 at the G © Getty Images

Why? It seems unlikely that women were ever actively prevented from playing there, given how they were welcomed earlier. Cost may well have been a factor: the Victorian women's cricket association made £135 in gate receipts from the 1935 Test (which was attended by 13,000 spectators), but the amount they spent on arranging the match and accommodating the English tourists left them £60 in the red. That loss - approximately £3000 (or US$3900) in today's money - was something an amateur organisation could ill afford.

A key point was a dilemma that women's cricket still grapples with. Is it better to play at large grounds, which are unlikely to be filled, or to stick to smaller venues, where the crowd's presence is visibly and audibly apparent? The MCG was clearly the first type of venue. "People didn't consider it the right environment for women's cricket," recalls England's Jane Powell, who played on the 1984-85 tour. "It was simply too big."

Even when the G was used, it was not always a popular choice. Nancy Joy, one of the 1948-49 tourists, described it as "sombre, almost forbidding", while England's Jan Brittin remembered it as "a very large and very lonely place". Charlotte Edwards, ahead of her first match at the ground in February 2008, was so overwhelmed that she got lost en route to the player drop-off point and crashed a minibus containing half of the England side, taking the roof off the hired vehicle.

But the problem with avoiding grounds on the basis of size alone is that it disregards the symbolic importance of women playing at iconic venues. If only men play at the home of Australian cricket, cricket comes to be viewed as a male pursuit; tour guides learn to tell a story in which women are notable only by their absence. In this case, the absence was to be a lengthy one: after those two drawn Tests in the earliest days of international women's cricket, it was 40 years before another women's team set foot onto the turf of the MCG.

In early 1988, Powell, then the England captain, received an important piece of mail. Enclosed was the itinerary for the Women's World Cup, which was due to be hosted by Australia for the first time later that year. When Powell tore open the envelope, she saw that the final was scheduled to be held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. "That was very exciting," she recalls. "It was all very low-key in some ways - there was nothing in the press announcing it or anything - but the MCG was the cricket ground in Australia. For me, it was like: this is the place that you want to play cricket."

"When you walk into the empty stadium, the sheer volume and the sheer height of it all, it takes your breath away. You're like, 'Wow. Imagine if this was packed'" Lisa Sthalekar, former Australia captain

From the outset, the organisers of the 1988 World Cup envisaged that the G would stage the final, and they were confident that their request would be granted. By this time Australian women's cricket had full state support. The government contributed A$110,000 (A$268,776, or US$179,623 in today's money) towards the costs of the tournament via the Australian Bicentennial Authority and the Sports Commission. There was also generous sponsorship from Shell Australia. Additionally, the Melbourne Cricket Club had moved four years earlier to, at last, admit females to full membership, with a postal ballot of 19,800 members returning a 2:1 majority in favour. The stage was set for a triumphant female return to the home of Australian cricket.

Unfortunately, poor weather, along with less than progressive attitudes by some of the groundsmen, combined to make the final - England v Australia - rather a damp squib.

"It had rained overnight," Powell recalls. "And it felt like they weren't really bothered whether the game went on or not. It was almost like, it's an extra game for the ground staff. They didn't even use the Super Sopper."

Although no overs were lost, the outfield was soaking wet when play began. England chose to bat, Powell remembers, "because that's how we'd beaten them before". Partly because of the outfield, they made only 127 in their 60 overs, with just two boundaries.

By afternoon the ground had dried out. In the 15th over of Australia's chase, Lindsay Reeler appeared to edge a ball from Gill Smith to Lisa Nye behind the stumps - which would have left the Australians on 36 for 3 - but the umpire was unmoved. For the first time at a women's World Cup, electronic replay equipment was available, which added insult to injury. "They showed the replay on the big screen, and you could see it as clear as anything!" Powell says. "And I can remember speaking to Lindsay Reeler afterwards, saying, 'You hit that', and she went, 'Yeah, I did.'" Reeler went on to make 59 not out, Australia won by eight wickets and that was that.

The 1988 final did at least pave the way for something of a procession of women's matches at the G. This was helped by the ever-closer relationship between Women's Cricket Australia and the (men's) Australian Cricket Board, which in 2003 amalgamated to form a new national body, Cricket Australia, to jointly oversee the men's and women's games. Between 2002 and 2014, five women's ODIs were staged at the MCG. In February 2008, Alex Blackwell became the first woman to score a century there; almost six years later Nicole Bolton went one better and hit a hundred on debut at the ground.

Jane Powell, former England captain:

Jane Powell, former England captain: "For me, the MCG was like: this is the place that you want to play cricket" © Getty Images

The rise of the double-header brought more women's cricket to the G: of the seven women's T20Is between 2008 and 2017, all preceded an Australia men's match. In 2016 the final of the inaugural Women's Big Bash League was held at the ground - also part of a double-header, along with the men's BBL final. So frequently did women appear at the G that Lisa Sthalekar, who played in best-of-three Women's National Cricket League finals at the ground in 2003 and 2004, says that playing there became "just normal". Yet, one thing was missing.

"When we played there, there would be literally 20 people there, if that," says Sthalekar. "There were times where they would be doing building work there and they would just carry on working while we played, and you just had the workers there whistling at you and cheering you on."

On the 15 occasions that the MCG has staged women's internationals, the largest crowd for a standalone match has been the 7000 who turned up to the second day of the 1935 Test. Twenty-five thousand reportedly showed up to watch Ellyse Perry's first big moment on the international stage, in February 2008 (she hit 29 not out and took 4 for 20 on T20I debut) - but that match was a double-header, and the ticketing system was such that the best seats for the men's match went to those who arrived earliest. The 1988 World Cup final was free to attend, but only 3000 spectators showed up. "It felt like an empty cavern," Powell remembers.

"When you walk into the empty stadium, the sheer volume and the sheer height of it all, it takes your breath away," says Sthalekar. "You're like, 'Wow. Imagine if this was packed.' But we never got that type of opportunity."

A full house for a women's match at the MCG? To Powell, Sthalekar and the rest, it seemed unthinkable.

Unbeknown to them, though, the unthinkable was being conceived. In late 2017, a crucial meeting took place at the Cricket Australia offices in Melbourne - just across the road from the MCG. Gathered around the table was the organising committee of the 2020 T20 World Cup, a team that featured CA executive Belinda Clark and the event CEO, Nick Hockley. On the agenda was the question of where the final of the women's event would be staged.

Charlotte Edwards, ahead of her first match at the ground, was so overwhelmed that she got lost en route to the player drop-off point and crashed a minibus containing half the England side

Discussions went on for hours - Hockley says the decision was "agonised over" - but eventually they reached a unanimous verdict: the women's final would take place at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. And, alongside that, a brave ambition: to play that final in front of a capacity crowd of 95,000.

With a number of smaller grounds clamouring to host the final, this was a courageous call, to say the least. Hockley and his committee appeared to be dispensing with women's cricket's old adage that the sport does not really belong at the biggest grounds. "We knew people would say, 'Gosh, that's a really bold, audacious thing to do,'" says Hockley.

"I was surprised," says Sthalekar. "I thought they'd go for somewhere a little bit smaller, maybe the Adelaide Oval or the SCG. It's been a bold statement by them."

So why now? Hockley turns the question on its head.

"If not now, when, and if not here, where? We'd already decided that we wanted the women's tournament played as a separate event. That affords you the opportunity to market the final in its own right. If the best male players are playing on that big stage, which they are, then absolutely, of course, logically the best women players should also play on that stage. You're on this great trajectory, with the WBBL, with the profile of the game globally.

"We took a lot of confidence from the 2017 tournament in England, which took place when we were doing a lot of the decision-making, and particularly the sold-out final at Lord's. The MCG is the biggest cricket ground in the world, so it was a case of, 'If we don't try, we'll never have this opportunity again.' And it's the right thing to do."

The contrast with those who for years avoided using the MCG for women's matches - those who considered it "not the right environment for women's cricket" - could scarcely be more marked.

But before the meeting there was one group of people that Hockley and Clark needed to convince.

The 2017 Women's World Cup final played out before a sellout crowd at Lord's. Is it too much to expect the same of the MCG?

The 2017 Women's World Cup final played out before a sellout crowd at Lord's. Is it too much to expect the same of the MCG? © Getty Images

"We went and spoke to the Australian women's team and asked their views," Hockley recalls. "We said, 'How would you feel about playing in some of the biggest grounds in Australia?' They actually started off saying, 'We don't want to be playing in empty stadiums, we don't want to be embarrassed.' But then Ellyse Perry, who played in the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, talked about when she played in front of a packed stadium (nearly 25,000 attended Australia's quarter-final against Sweden). She said she's never had a feeling like it."

The players were convinced: they wanted to go for it.

It remains to be seen whether the gamble will pay off. Can women's cricket indeed fill the G, 85 years after the first women's match there? Much depends on whether Australia reach the final. But advance ticket sales are reportedly promising, and the buzz around the event keeps growing - it was recently announced that Katy Perry will play a full concert after the final.

"If we don't get there, then we weren't ready for it, but it could be years until Australia host another T20 World Cup," says Hockley. "And certainly I didn't want to be thinking after the event, 'If only we could have scheduled it somewhere bigger.'"

This is women's cricket's direction of travel now: big, brash, bold. Combine that with the symbolic importance of tens of thousands of fans flooding the MCG for a women's match and you start to realise that breaking the world record is just background noise. The important thing is that the women's game finally belongs - at the home of Australian cricket, and in the biggest arena in the game.

Come March 8, we'd all do well to celebrate that.

With special thanks to David Studham, Melbourne Cricket Club Librarian, for his help in researching this piece

Raf Nicholson is a writer on and historian of women's cricket. @RafNicholson

 

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