When the MCG was in Southbank!

Robin Grow

Many residents of Southbank have a good view of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) from their windows and balconies.

The massive ground, surrounded by light towers, sits in Yarra Park, on the eastern fringe of the city. It anchors a huge sporting complex of venues for cricket, Australian football, soccer, rugby league, and tennis, and is the home of the Melbourne Cricket Club, formed around 1838.

They played on various grounds but soon occupied a piece of land in what is now known as Southbank. It was just to the south of the Yarra, believed to be on the site occupied today by Crown Casino and was part of the land traditionally inhabited by the Wurundjeri tribe.

The Southbank area was low-lying and notoriously swampy and the new cricket ground next to the river flooded regularly, making it difficult to establish and maintain wicket areas and facilities. It was reported as having flooded six times over a decade and in 1849 the flood waters reached to the top of their bell-shaped tents!

Nevertheless, the club had a busy program at the Southbank venue (even if matches were advertised as due to take place when the flood waters have receded) as new clubs were being formed across Melbourne and the club played an intercolonial match against Tasmania in 1852. By 1853 the club had expended some £300 on grading, turfing and fencing the ground.

In a portent of the future, a number of liquor licences were granted to publicans for matches on Wednesdays and Saturdays. But there was no security of tenure, as it was on Crown land and was regarded as occupying the space “under sufferance”.

A major blow came in 1853 when a new railway line, from the city to Sandridge (Port Melbourne) was proposed, which would cut straight through the cricket ground. Melbourne was undergoing massive transformation due to the Gold Rush and new transport systems were to be an essential part of the infrastructure of the booming city.

The club was forced to relocate, but where to go? The Lieutenant Governor, La Trobe, was sympathetic to its plight and the government offered two sites. The club selected the site of the current ground in Jolimont, used by the Police to graze their horses, and the club was able to commence the long process of developing wickets, securing water supply, developing changing sheds for players, building fences and constructing rudimentary grandstands for spectators – all with little fear of flooding.

Today the original site of the MCG is fully built up and occupied. But we can only wonder what it would it have meant if the MCG had stayed in Southbank … •

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