The MCG’s hidden national sporting treasure

    Tuesday at the MCG happened to be the day that the former Australian swing bowler turned right instead of left on his way to the commentary box, and a new dimension to his past and present workplace opened.“I’d known about it but never knew where it was or walked past it,” he says.“I have a lot of old books in my library but you walk in and I’ve never seen something like this.” Commentator Mark Nicholas is another new convert. Despite years of covering cricket at the famous ground, he first found the library this month. “I was amazed at the extent of it,” Nicholas tells CODE Sports.“I found a lot of interesting stuff that I hadn’t seen before, some quite important cricket history books.”While some of cricket’s best known names have just discovered this hidden treasure, MCC librarian David Studham explains that it has long been part of a day at the cricket for a certain group of spectators.“We were founded in September 1873, when the publishers of The Australasian donated its first 12 years of publications to the MCC, ” Studham tells CODE Sports.“That started the collection.”It was humbly stored in a cupboard in the pavilion at that time, before a reading room was included when the second pavilion was built in 1881. As the ground grew, so did the collection into a bona fide accessible library, now into its fifth iteration. While Fleming and Nicholas are first-timers, other commentators like Tim Lane and Alison Mitchell are regulars in the library. Studham says writer Gideon Haigh is in the library “more than anyone else”. You can’t borrow the books so during a normal week, it is a reference library frequented mainly by academics, writers and journalists. But come the Boxing Day Test, it’s packed with cricket lovers from all walks of life on their annual MCG pilgrimage.“If it’s a nice summer day, we might have somewhere between 500-700 people through the day,” Studham says. “If it’s raining or if England’s playing, we might get over 1000.”Studham says there are regulars who have a routine, including picking up the traditional fact sheets that Studham and his team produce each day.“They’ll come in, grab the fact sheets, scour the new books on display, then sit down and start reading.“Others walk in, wide-eyed, and say, ‘Oh my god, what is this?’ They’ve been a member for 40 years and had no idea we were here.”*****While Boxing Day draws the biggest crowd at the MCG, for the library, day two tends to be the most popular.“Day two is the traditionalists, people are not necessarily here to drink in the bars and instead will soak up the atmosphere,” Studham explains.“That can mean the museum and the library.” As the players break for lunch, the bars are packed full of fans enjoying a tipple or two or three. By the afternoon, they’ll be nice and rowdy but just metres away, they’re also pouring into a much more sedate place.Robert is sitting in an aisle reading a book on cricket commentary. He’s just moved back to Melbourne but a day at the cricket always includes some time in the library. “I snuck down early before lunch to beat the rush,” he tells CODE Sports. “I like to learn about the game. It’s browsing; you don’t have time to read anything from cover to cover. You can read an anecdote or two and then go back to the game.” There is a real mix of ages on day two. Harrison is 25 and has brought along a few mates to show them the library for the first time.“Every time I come to the members, I like to bring people in to check it out,” he says as he thumbs through some books about South African cricket.“It‘s good to check the view from the windows and take a moment just to sit back. It’s something my dad has passed on to me.“There’s so many books that you‘d never have at home and particularly during the cricket, you’ve got so much time through the day to really take it in.“And it’s got air-con, so it‘s fantastic,” he laughs as he escapes the 37-degree heat. Studham says that during the Boxing Day Test, they’ll have spectators resume something started during the football season.“Some of them might have started reading a book during the footy finals and then they’ll come and finish it during the Test match. They’ll have a bookmark and note what page they’re up to.”****Studham has been with the library since 1994 and for those in the know, he’s an unsung national sporting treasure. Almost 30 years on, he’s still as enthusiastic about the collection as ever. It boasts an estimated 100,000 books but overall, it houses almost one million items, including newspapers, magazines and scrapbooks, bought or bequeathed. While Studham estimates that cricket accounts for around 60 per cent of the books, the library contains material covering a multitude of sports. He says they’ve received compliments from the most prestigious places. “The people at the library at Wimbledon salivate over the tennis stuff we’ve got that they don’t have,” he says. “We had someone from the US Golf Association come out a few years back and he was amazed at the illustrated newspaper collections from the late 19th century and the amount of material that covered early golf.”But in a cricket sense, perhaps the proudest moment was when the Lord’s librarian spent the summer at the MCG and saw the crowds that the Australian equivalent attracted at the Test match. “The lunch break started and then it started to rain,” Studham says.“People were coming along the corridors, up the steps, down the steps. He used to work in immigration at Heathrow Airport and he said it was like three jumbos had arrived at the airport.“We had 1147 people come through that day and he said that will be about 1000 more than we get on the first day of the Lord’s Test.”While open to MCC members on match days and during the week, the general public can make an appointment to visit the library at non-match times. But it’s Test time that makes Studham and his team beam, as they gently convert more new attendees to the charms of sporting history. In a world of sport that’s increasingly focused on instant gratification and the great contradiction that is ‘fan engagement’, the idea that spectators can take a break and soak in the past without music or announcers blaring is something to celebrate. Fleming says he’s found a gem.“I’ll utilise it, “ he says.“I’m a reader and those obscure books you’ll never find, they’ll be in there. It will be a regular stop now for me.” Nicholas now knows what some MCG punters have quietly thought for years.“It’s a really special room.”

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