Cricket fans are setting their sights on a visit to Australia for the next instalment of The Ashes starting in just three months’ time.
Nick McAvaney takes a sporty trip through Melbourne, one of the host cities.
It must be every sports fan’s nightmare to miss a winning goal, wicket or shot because they’ve had to answer a desperate call of nature.
An early 20th century Australian Prime Minister obviously had that very thought in mind when he commissioned a special toilet to be built at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
As I peer into the unique single cubicle, with a direct view down the cricket pitch, I ponder on the perks of political power.
“He wanted to make sure he never missed a ball,” points out Evelyn, the local guide who is giving us a tour of the prestigious sports venue and its more quirky facilities.
The toilet is certainly a bizarre feature, but it’s one that will probably prove invaluable for someone when England and Australia contest the traditional Boxing Day Test match, the fourth in the next Ashes series, in Melbourne on December 26 to 30.
After the excitement of the series won by England this summer, fans will no doubt be tempted to invest in a trip to Australia this winter - and with good reason.
As I walk around the 100,000-seater stadium, which is four times bigger than Lord’s, I can imagine the crowds roaring as Michael Clarke unleashes an off drive to the boundary. Evelyn describes the atmosphere during matches as being electric.
There’s an 18-month waiting list for membership here and when it comes to important games, every seat in the house is taken - including, presumably, that special toilet.
But even when the stadium is empty, MCG is a fascinating place to visit. It is home to the Australian National Sports Museum, which is packed with interactive exhibits, hosts the world’s largest sports library and even has three prison cells on site.
“It’s where we put visitors who remind us who won the last Ashes Test at the MCG,” Evelyn jokes. She’s referring, of course, to the 2010 game in which England thrashed Australia by an innings and 157 runs to retain the little urn for the first time since 1987.
Australians have a reputation for being sports mad, and Melbourne is the nation’s self-declared capital of sport. But it’s not just cricket that sends spectators into a frenzy.
“It doesn’t matter what’s being played, we get good crowds,” says Simon from Melbourne Sports Tours, who takes me on a half-day tour of the city. “People here love sport.”
That passion and enthusiasm is evidently reflected in the large amount of investment in sports stadiums - especially at the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Precinct where most major sporting events take place.
Part of the precinct and close to the Melbourne Cricket Ground is Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open tennis major in January. Our tour winds its way around the Rod Laver Arena, the show court, and down into the changing rooms where Andy Murray requests to use the same locker every year and Roger Federer chooses to lock his with the digits that match the number of grand slams he has to his name.
Another sport that’s well supported in Melbourne is horse racing. Built in 1840, Flemington is the home of the “race that stops the nation”, the Melbourne Cup, run in early November. The fact it was built just five years after the city was founded goes to show just how important sport has always been to the locals.
The course is immaculately manicured and surprisingly accessible as it’s owned by the state and is effectively a public park. At any time, anyone can walk or jog through the grounds, except on race days, of course. I muster a leisurely stroll after declining Simon’s challenge to sprint the final few metres along the finishing straight.
Simon ends the tour by driving us through Albert Park, home to the Australian F1 Grand Prix and the city’s second sports stadium, which hosts football and rugby matches of both codes.
But you don’t have to be a fan of watching sport to enjoy the energy of Melbourne. To explore more of the city, I take advantage of the local bike hire scheme, which operates a bit like London’s Boris bikes.
Following an afternoon spent cycling along the banks of the Yarra River, I find myself in Federation Square. It was here that Cadel Evans celebrated with his adoring fans after winning the Tour de France in 2011.
Last year, hundreds of locals gathered in front of the square’s big screen to watch the London 2012 Olympics - and weep into their beer over Australia’s somewhat lacklustre performance.
Even Melbourne’s bars and restaurants are peppered with sporting references. Cycling hero Sir Chris Hoy says Melbourne is one of his favourite places to eat out, and he rates Pillar Of Salt cafe on Church Street as his favourite place to drink coffee. Sadly there isn’t a gold - or even bronze - medallist in sight when I pay a visit, but I have to agree with Sir Chris that the lattes are particularly good.
Most sporting celebrities choose to stay at the Crown Casino hotel when they’re in town, so in the hope of being closer to my sporting heroes I book a room at the neighbouring Crown Metropol.
At breakfast I notice the hotel restaurant overlooks the Crown Casino’s rooftop tennis court and I ask the waiter if the pros play there.
“Yes, you’ll often see the best players out there at night. We watched Andy Murray for an hour or so earlier this year,” he replies.
Sadly, the hotel doesn’t have any plans for a rooftop cricket pitch, although I suggest it would be a worthwhile investment. They still have time before December rolls around.
As I head back to London in supremely comfortable business class seats with Singapore Airlines (in the style of a true celebrity sportsman, of course), I can’t help but wonder how a ticket to the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne would be infinitely more desirable than a Christmas spent in the UK watching repeats of Only Fools And Horses and eating leftover turkey.
Whether England win or lose, the atmosphere in Melbourne will be unbeatable. In the stadiums, restaurants and even toilet cubicles, sports fans will undoubtedly be on the edge of their seats.
Travel facts - Melbourne
:: Nick McAvaney was a guest of Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com and 0844 800 2380) which flies four times daily from London Heathrow and daily from Manchester to Singapore for onward connections to six destinations across Australia. Flights to Melbourne start from £900 per person in economy or from £4,590 in business class (restrictions apply).
:: The Crown Metropol (www.crownmetropol.com.au) offers doubles from £190 per night.
:: Half/full day tours with Melbourne Sports Tours (www.melbournesportstours.com.au) start from £70.
:: For more information on Melbourne and Victoria, visit www.visitmelbourne.com/uk