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As summer approached in 1838, five English gentlemen in the new European settlement on the banks of the Yarra River met together to form the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC). A week later, on 22 November, the first cricket match, between a team of civilians and the military, was played on a paddock in William Street. Then, in January 1839, the traders and artisans formed the Melbourne Union Cricket Club and added another team.

For the next decade, cricket games were organised between teams selected from such groups as the bachelors against the husbands or the bearded against the clean-shaven, although the establishment of Brighton and Geelong introduced teams based on a locality. There were four balls to the over, underarm bowling was standard and gambling was often the main interest. In the summer of 1851, a representative team of Melbourne gentlemen travelled to Launceston to play against a Tasmanian team and in February 1852 a party of Tasmanians returned to play the initial first-class game in Melbourne.

A site dedicated to cricket was gradually defined. After moving to land west of Spencer Street, the Melbourne Cricket Club gained government backing to secure 10 acres (4 ha) of land south of the Yarra River. In September 1853, because of the laying of the Melbourne-South Melbourne railway, the cricketers again moved, this time to the government paddock east of the settlement. The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) began its permanent existence and in March 1856 hosted an intercolonial game between Victoria and New South Wales, the large crowd indicative of an expanding Melbourne and of contemporary colonial rivalries played out on the cricket field.

The interest in cricket increased with the gold rushes and with the appearance of individuals skilled in the game. Tom Wills returned from schooling at Rugby at the end of 1856 and emerged as a leading batsman and bowler. George Marshall, who had emigrated from Nottinghamshire and played for Victoria, formed the Professional Cricketers' Association in recognition of the expanding numbers of skilled players.

In 1861 the proprietors of the Café de Paris sponsored a visit of an English cricket team. Arriving to a tumultuous welcome on Christmas Eve, the team drew large crowds to the matches, starting with a game against a Victorian eighteen at the MCG on New Year's Day in 1862. Alert to the financial success of this venture, another English team toured in 1863-64 and William Caffyn, who played in both tours, stayed behind to take up a coaching position with the MCC.

The entrepreneurial spirit was again in evidence in December 1866 when a team of Aboriginal cricketers played against the MCC at the MCG before setting out on a tour to England. Over the rest of the 19th century there were regular overseas tours organised by the MCC. New South Wales batsman Charles Bannerman's century in the first Australia versus England Test in 1877 saw the crowd at the MCG grow to 4500 as word of his heroic stand passed around the city. Subsequent English tours lost credibility and it was not until the summer of 1891 that a strong team under the management of Lord Sheffield and including W.G. Grace revived interest. A crowd of 63 352 went to the MCG to witness the Test, the first to be played over five days and with six balls an over.

By the middle of the 1860s there was a sufficient number of clubs - Melbourne, East Melbourne, Richmond, South Melbourne, North Melbourne, Carlton and St Kilda - to organise a more regular calendar of games. In each of the suburbs, cricket grounds were formed, grandstands built and teams selected from the young men who were sufficiently interested to come to training. Young women, too, began to play the game. Although the experience and influence of members of the MCC consistently challenged a more representational association of clubs, eventually the Victorian Cricket Association emerged in 1895. Another decade of negotiation took place before cricket in Melbourne assumed a stable structure, with District cricket composed of Carlton, Collingwood, East Melbourne, Essendon, Fitzroy, North Melbourne, Melbourne, Northcote, Prahran, Richmond, South Melbourne, St Kilda and University. At the next tier, Sub-District cricket comprised Brighton, Brunswick (from 1908), Caulfield, Coburg, Elsternwick, Hawthorn, Malvern, Port Melbourne and Williamstown. In 1912, the Cricket Union of Victoria was formed to represent the many other leagues, many of which were formed around suburban churches. Also, in 1905 the Victorian Ladies' Cricket Association was established, including teams from Essendon, Maribyrnong, Brighton, Elsternwick, Ascot Vale, Kew and from various women's organisations. The first interstate match was played against Tasmania in March 1906.

By the end of the 19th century, a career path had been established for a young man to move from playing local cricket to a District club to gaining selection to play for Victoria. In January 1893, Victoria was awarded the first Sheffield Shield and both District and Sheffield Shield cricket began to attract large crowds to their games. The transition of Victorian players to the Australian team, however, was more problematic. Gradually, the MCC's influence in organising overseas tours was curtailed and in 1905 the Australian Board of Control for International Cricket was established. There were six Victorians in the first ACB-selected team to tour England in 1909-10 drawn from the Melbourne, East Melbourne and Prahran clubs, chief among them Warwick Armstrong, known as 'the Big Ship'. But in 1912 a dispute divided Melbourne's cricket scene when players led by Frank Laver of East Melbourne attempted to maintain their authority in international tours. The Board prevailed and was to set the parameters of the sport for the next 75 years. Jack Ryder, who played for Collingwood and made his Test debut in 1920-21, became both a Victorian and a national selector on retirement.

Selection and the rules of cricket were always matters for debate: Warwick Armstrong's dropping from the Victorian side in 1921 precipitated a public meeting at the Melbourne Town Hall, while Bodyline in 1933, Ian Meckiff's bowling action in 1963, and the ban on Shane Warne in 2003 caused similar controversies. Melbourne's newspapers contributed to interest in the sport and past players like Tom Horan, who wrote as 'Felix' in the Australasian, and the pugnacious Jack Worrall, who had played for Carlton, became prominent journalists.

Every second year, the Test series against England brought a touring English side to Melbourne and the opportunity to watch the best cricketers of the time. Ted McDonald, who played for Fitzroy, lifted the art of fast bowling a notch before his departure to play in England in 1922. Roy Park, who played for University and South Melbourne, made a memorable duck at the MCG. A loud ovation from his home crowd accompanied him to the wicket on his Test debut during the second Test against England in December 1920, but he was bowled first ball and was never selected again. Park, a doctor, had been called out on a maternity case the night before and had had no sleep. His wife, who was knitting in the grandstand, stooped to recover a dropped ball of wool and missed the event.

Melbourne crowds were treated to some great batting between the wars. Don Bradman drew the largest crowds but Melburnians had two of their own to applaud. Bill Ponsford, who played for St Kilda and Melbourne, created a world record with his 429 against Tasmania at the MCG in the 1920-21 season and went on to score more than 10 000 runs in first-class cricket. With partner Bill Woodfull, who played for Essendon, South Melbourne and Carlton, he opened the batting for Victoria and Australia from 1925 to 1934. Woodfull captained Australia from 1930 to 1934 and gained the admiration of cricket crowds in the Bodyline series. In women's cricket, the first Test series was played against England in the summer of 1934-35, drawing a crowd of 13 000 for the third Test in Melbourne.

After World War II, the horizons of cricket broadened. The 1960-61 West Indies tour brought record crowds to the MCG. The fifth and deciding test attracted 90 800 for the second day and 274 424 for the whole match. So great was the enthusiasm that the West Indies team was given a ticker-tape send-off through the city streets when the Test ended. Cricketers continued to entertain Melbourne crowds: all-rounder Betty Wilson from Collingwood, who took 10 wickets and made a century in one match against England; bowlers like the quickies Max Walker and Merv Hughes, the off-spinner Ian Johnson and leg-spinner Shane Warne; copybook batsmen like Lindsay Hassett, the left-handed Neil Harvey, Bob Cowper with the highest Test score on the MCG of 307, the openers Bill Lawry and Keith Stackpole, the stylish Paul Sheahan and the prolific Dean Jones.

Yet in March 1977, when the Centenary Test was held at the MCG, the coincidence of the same winning margin by Australia as in the first Test was minor compared to other events taking place. Overshadowing Rick McCosker's bandaged face and David Hookes' five consecutive fours was the news that 18 Australian cricketers signed to play with Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket after the match. One-day cricket, first played on the MCG after a Test was washed out in January 1971, and repeated in January 1975, now challenged cricket as it had been known. One-day cricket became a regular fixture in 1979 after a truce gave Packer exclusive television rights and the right to promote all first-class cricket.

Underarm bowling was banned in limited-over games after a memorable incident at the MCG on 1 February 1981 when, before a record crowd of 52 990, Greg Chappell instructed his brother Trevor to bowl underarm to complete a game against New Zealand. Since then there have been other changes: Kanga cricket, a modified game for children, was introduced in 1983; a cricket academy at the Australian Institute of Sport was established in 1987; in 1992 the final of the World Cup was played at the MCG; a domestic one-day competition was introduced; Victorians became known as the Bushrangers and the Sheffield Shield as the Pura Milk Cup. Yet cricket in Melbourne remains a strongly supported summer game and on cricket grounds all around the city women and men, girls and boys pursue the exacting sport. At the same time, cricket spectating has taken on new dimensions, including the Mexican Wave common to both the traditional Boxing Day Test and the revelry of one-day internationals.

June Senyard

Coleman, Robert, Seasons in the sun: The story of the Victorian Cricket Association, Hargreen Publishing, Melbourne, 1993. Details
Haigh, Gideon, The summer game: Australian Test cricket 1949-1971, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1997. Details