If it involves bats or balls or both the Australians are bound to want to be involved -- and so is Nicholas Jones, who joins the crowds for a fiesta of sport at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

They say Melburnians would turn up to watch pretty much any sport.

In Aussie Rules-mad Victoria, 87,000 of them head along to watch State of Origin, which is about as foreign as sport can get for these people.

It's an enthusiasm that's bred an impressive sporting pedigree -- think test cricket at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Melbourne Cup at Flemington and the grunts of Rod Laver centre court.

All the same, I'm a tiny bit deflated after learning my taste of the MCG will be watching domestic T20 cricket. Used to the New Zealand version that seemingly attracts almost as many friends and family as paying spectators, I noted the match's Thursday night billing and the fact the Melbourne Stars were already guaranteed a place in the finals.


What kind of scorebook-toting tragics would bother parting with their hard-earned money to watch such a low-stakes knockabout match? More than 33,000 of them, as it turns out.

What's more, they actually make a lot of noise -- the love of live sport here combined with Aussie brashness means atmosphere at the "G" isn't just down to the numbers it can hold.

A previous visit to the ground was for an Aussie Rules match and I sat in delighted fascination as a father constantly sledged his wife and two teenage daughters about their support for Carlton. Eventually, the mum and daughters -- fed up with Dad's ranting -- had had enough and left early.

Tonight is more carnival and easy-going -- there are plenty of young kids and the biggest cheer is for a seagull that recovers after being hit by the ball. A six in the final over seals it for the home team and the crowd is on its feet.

As great as the MCG is as a stadium, the pleasure for spectators is also its setting -- an easy stroll from the city centre through parks or past rowers training on the Yarra River, the ground neighbours other famous venues including Rod Laver Arena and AAMI Park.

That proximity means it's not unusual for major sporting events to run almost side-by-side, greatly multiplying the already considerable match day atmospheres.

Before tonight's cricket our group had a quick dinner at a trendy Mexican restaurant filled to capacity with city workers and those about to head to the sporting precinct, then joined the stream of people in the direction of the iconic towering lights.

Heading the other way after the match, we mixed with fans from the Australian Open night session, some walking through Federation Square where crowds had gathered to watch the tennis on big screens.


A day earlier, hundreds of Japanese football fans had joined the mix, in town to support their team in the Asian Cup at AAMI Park, purpose-built for rectangular-field codes.

Melbourne Cricket Ground. Photo / Getty Images
Melbourne Cricket Ground. Photo / Getty Images

Another benefit of the bunching of world-class stadiums is that bars and other attractions are more likely to spring up close by -- the district is humming several nights a week.

When I visited, watering options ranged from the permanent and famed, such as the Cricketers Arms Hotel, to the pop-up Royal Croquet Club along the Yarra near Rod Laver Arena.

An entirely different perspective on the city's sporting arenas can be experienced through a half-day tour with Melbourne Sports Tours.

General manager Anthony collects me from my hotel and in the comfort of an air-conditioned van whisks me around the "must-see" venues for any sports fan.

First is Flemington Race Course, most famously the venue of the Melbourne Cup.

Friends who have attended in recent years have spoken of the oppressive heat and crowds, and the tour is a chance to take in the track and grounds without having to find a path through 100,000 punters.

Through Anthony I learn the racetrack was founded on the river flats beside the Maribyrnong River in 1840, when the town of Melbourne was just over five years old (Aussies do love a punt).

Today, the well-known Myer department store sells a fascinator or hat every minute in the days before the Melbourne Cup.

We then head to the MCG itself, where I join a tour run by volunteer Melbourne Cricket Club members, mostly retirees in blazers and ties who do it happily and without pay, such is their pride and love of the ground.

This system results in a pleasing lack of polish at times. We're shown the practice nets below the ground, where a player in Australian cricket batting gear is expertly smashing balls fed through a cricket bowling machine.

"Oh, it's a female!" our guide, softly spoken Frederick, exclaims, before leading on to the changing rooms home and visiting teams used.

The whiteboards still contain motivational messages written for the Melbourne Stars Big Bash team, and before we leave Frederick corrals an unenthusiastic teenager in the group to give us a pep talk, as though we too are about to head on to the hallowed turf.

"Play straight and go hard," he mumbles as we all look at the floor, willing a quick end to the least-inspiring speech in the history of the ground.

Up in the members' area we linger on huge oil paintings of past Melbourne Cricket Club presidents in the long room.

Damien Oliver rides Le Roi to win race five, the Queen Elizabeth Stakes on Stakes Day at Flemington Racecourse. Photo / Getty Images
Damien Oliver rides Le Roi to win race five, the Queen Elizabeth Stakes on Stakes Day at Flemington Racecourse. Photo / Getty Images

Old leather couches have signs asking members to reserve them for older members (who, joking aside, must be those aged 90 or older). Apparently it's not uncommon for the seats to be lined with napping old boys during even the most gripping play.

The prestige of the MCC and access it gives, not just to facilities but also tickets, means parents sign up newborns to the waiting list. A baby born today would wait around 40 years before joining the club.

No trip here is complete without visiting the impressive National Sports Museum underneath the ground.

Sports fans -- particularly cricket, but also Olympic and others -- should give themselves at least a couple of hours, while obsessives should set aside days.

There is a huge collection of sporting memorabilia, including Bradman's baggy green, interactive challenges to test sport skills, and even a hologram of Shane Warne that is more convincing than the current flesh and blood version.

Melbourne Sports Tours will also whisk groups to the regenerating Docklands area of the city to have lunch overlooking Etihad Stadium, and drive around the Formula 1 course at Albert Park (including a great photo opportunity on the start line).

This is, of course, all done while driving through the surrounding suburbs, and by the end of the half-day visitors will feel they have more of a grasp not just of the sporting landscape of Melbourne.

Another recommended option for those wanting to explore but with limited time is to see the city on the back of a custom chopper trike.

Melbourne local Alan sold his bikes when his family was growing up, then rewarded himself when his daughters were old enough to fend for themselves.

The number of people asking for a ride led to the thought that there could be a business in it, and so it has proven with Melbourne Tours on Trike.

Tours can be customised and can include a full day's run down the world-famous Great Ocean Rd or a night ride around Melbourne.

From the start, the machine I'm on gets attention (as it should, the BoomTrike being the only one in Victoria).

The second pedestrian we pass stops in his tracks to stare, and others take photos, point, or feel the urge to yell encouragement.

The neck snaps back enjoyably as we speed over the soaring West Gate Bridge, but most of the tour is at a pace all will be comfortable with.

I can talk to Alan through a microphone, and his running and informed commentary on our surrounds is as good as any conventional city tour -- the considerable difference being that instead of peering through a window I have the wind on my face.

Daniil Kvyat greets fans before the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia. Photo / Getty Images
Daniil Kvyat greets fans before the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia. Photo / Getty Images

Our loop takes in some of Melbourne's essential sights, including the tourist-filled beachside strip of St Kilda, the "tan" running track around the Botanic Gardens and Albert Park's grand prix circuit.

My highlight is crossing West Gate to eventually reach the historic waterfront suburb of Williamstown (with charm similar to Devonport), which I have never visited in many visits to Melbourne.

At one point the smell of Vegemite fills the nostrils as we pass a factory, and while cruising through the now upmarket suburbs near the waterfront cruise terminals I'm told of the area's rapid gentrification.

"This was a hard place to come and play footy," Alan says, wistfully.

The tour is a recommended option for those on a short trip for the Cricket World Cup or another sporting event, leaving time to spend exploring the city's famed laneway bars and restaurants.

It's also an idea to be flexible enough to take advantage of any other events that might happen to be on in what is justifiably called Australia's sporting capital -- I'm able to fit in an session at the Australian Open before catching a flight home.


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Melbourne. One-way 'Seat' fares start from $199.

Details: Melbourne Tours on Trike and Melbourne Sports Tours.

Accommodation: The Mantra on Russell offers rooms and apartments in the heart of Melbourne's CBD, with its excellent restaurants and shopping that are an easy stroll to the sporting precinct, including the MCG and Rod Laver Arena.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Victoria.