Sat, 05 Dec 2020

How SCG's Boxing Day offer turned into India tour start

ESPNCricInfo
28 Oct 2020, 23:43 GMT+10

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A little less than two months ago the SCG Trust chairman, Tony Shepherd, discovered he had been thwarted in a quest to bring the AFL Grand Final to Sydney.

Football's decision to award the competition decider to Brisbane and the Gabba on September 1, left Shepherd looking towards Melbourne's other iconic day of the year, the Boxing Day Test, as a chance to step in amid an Australian sporting calendar challenged by Covid-19.

His first contact was Cricket Australia's chairman Earl Eddings, who gave the approach short shrift. Eddings, a staunch Victorian, was still hoping that Melbourne's coronavirus numbers would ease in enough time to allow the MCG to host a Test match, albeit with reduced capacity, a hope that has proven well founded. Equally, Brisbane seemed a more likely proposition to host India's arrival for the start of their tour, with white-ball matches likely to be shared between the Gabba and the Gold Coast.

In years gone by, this early September exchange between the Trust and cricket might have been a rare conversation amid a generally frosty link between the SCG's custodians and their oldest tenants. But as a result of significant relationship building between Shepherd, Eddings and the Cricket New South Wales chairman John Knox over the past two years, the dialogue was jovial, and soon to evolve into much more mutually beneficial territory.

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"I really started going on this a while ago when I put the proposal forward that if the MCG can't host the Boxing Day Test then we would be happy to host it in their stead," Shepherd told ESPNcricinfo. "That wasn't an opportunity to knock out the MCG, we were just saying 'look it's a great tradition and they're a sister club of ours we like a lot, but if it's not possible to have it there then we could squeeze it into our schedule and host it at the SCG'.

"I spoke to Earl at that time and he said 'no, we're confident it will be at the MCG, it may have reduced numbers'. Then we heard they were looking at how they're going to handle the T20s and the one dayers with the Indian touring team, and I let Earl know we were very happy to help.

"If you look at it logically, Sydney is a great location, we've got one of the lowest infection rates in the world, we've freed up attendance at arenas quicker and better than anybody else, we've got the best tracking and tracing system probably in the world, and it's a lovely environment. The Indian diaspora in Sydney is bigger than any other city in Australia - whenever the Indians are playing a Test at the SCG, the whole ground's on fire, they're just wonderful spectators. I said 'this is the logical place to be'."

Initially, Eddings kept his counsel, but by the weekend of October 17-18 it had become increasingly clear that previously fruitful conversations with Queensland state government - which saw Allan Border Field host the women's series between Australia and New Zealand - had stumbled as the state's election crept ever closer. On the Sunday, it was not Shepherd reaching out in search of extra content for the SCG, but Eddings seeking a port of entry for the Indian touring party, and with it the six white-ball matches to be played before the Tests.

"Earl then rang me a couple of weeks ago and said 'look, it could be on, would you guys be happy to host it' and I said 'absolutely mate, I don't have to check with anybody, we'd be delighted to host it, it'd be a terrific opportunity for us, and we'll do anything we can to help out, but you'll obviously have to deal with the NSW government', which he did," Shepherd said. "I've got very close to Earl over the last few years, and I'd say our relationship with CA has never been as strong before as it is now."

This hasn't all simply been a matter of glad handing and amiable conversation in corporate boxes. The Trust's standing in the eyes of cricket administration has risen in accordance with its performance. The dual triumphs of getting results on a pair of rain blighted nights for the BBL final and then the pivotal women's T20 World Cup semi-final between Australia and South Africa (without which Meg Lanning's team would've missed the March 8 MCG final), generated a level of respect that had been in need of reinforcement.

"We've shown in those finals just exactly how good we can be," Shepherd said. "What could have been a disaster turned out to be a terrific couple of finals, albeit with some reduced time. It shows we can deliver. We've been doing it for 150 years so we should be getting good at it.

"We've struggled in the last year as you can imagine, we lose money with games played with reduced numbers, it actually costs us money. So this has been very hard for us financially in the last nine months, so we're looking to cricket to help us get back financially on our feet. Not just from an emotional point of view but a financial point of view it's important for us, and the role of this new merged sporting entity, is to grow events in NSW."

That shared entity to run all NSW stadiums, which has been nicknamed the "Super Trust", took a significant hit when the Gabba claimed the AFL decider. "We were disappointed the Grand Final went to Brisbane, we understand why it went there but we think we could've done a really good job here in Sydney and everyone would've been safe, but that's the AFL's decision," he said. "But that fired us up...we were going 'now listen, we've got to make sure this doesn't happen again'."

In some ways, the idea for an extra portion of India's tour in New South Wales had sat in Shepherd's mind well before Covid-19 hit, thanks to a chance meeting outside the SCG gates in February. "I was walking past the SCG just before the pandemic, eight or nine months ago and there was an Indian guy just standing at the gate, looking in at the ground. I said 'you right mate' and he said 'oh look, I booked for the tour but I missed the start point and I'm going back to India tomorrow and I just wanted to see the SCG before I went home'.

"I said 'oh alright, come with me' and I took him inside and walked around and we had a look and took him out onto the field and all that. He was knocked flat. It is just so special to them, they probably recognise the SCG and Lord's as equivalent grounds around the world."

Boxing Day, then, will remain at the MCG. By then, however, Sydney will have already played an indelible part in getting international cricket played down under in the time of coronavirus.

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