Jainarayan Tiwari (left) and his friend at the MCG during Melbourne v Geelong in round eight, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

IF YOU'RE someone coming to Australia for the first time, be prepared to be amazed by some facts that might disappoint you if you're a cricket fan. Australia have won 10 major ICC trophies, which is the most by any team.

People in India still think Australia has won so many trophies because they are very much into cricket. When I came to Melbourne in July 2023, I noticed that people were heading into the Melbourne Cricket Ground in large numbers. As a cricket fan, I wondered: Is there a cricket match today? Why am I not aware of it?

Then I asked a group of people who were heading to the stadium: "Why are you heading towards the MCG? Is there a cricket game?" A guy wearing a red scarf with 'Demons' written on it said, "Mate, we are heading for the footy game, not cricket." I acted like I knew what footy was and said, "Hope you have a good time."

That's how I learned that the most prominent sport people follow in Australia, especially in Victoria, is the Australian Football League. The first time I saw a live football game on TV was the 2024 Grand Final played between Collingwood and the Brisbane Lions, and I wondered why this is called football if players also use their hands to collect the ball?

But I was amazed after reading the rules and regulations, and I remember calling my dad and saying that MCG is more famous for a footy game than watching a cricket match.

Coming from India and staying in Melbourne is arduous; I must step out of my comfort zone. But one thing that connects us is sports. In Australia, people eat, share, and breathe footy in the same way many Indians live for cricket.

Finally, this year, I decided to watch a footy game. One of my friends from India asked me if I'd like to go for a Melbourne v Geelong game, and without even thinking twice, I said yes. Who doesn't like to watch Max Gawn?

Max Gawn celebrates with fans after Melbourne's win over Geelong in round eight, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Last year, I went to the Boxing Day Test match at the 'G, and the significant difference I felt was the crowd's energy. In footy, it feels like the crowd is hungry.

The rivalry between the Demons and the Cats is terrific. Until last year, I had only heard about it. But this year, I witnessed it.

Excited fans draped in vibrant team colours created a sea of red, blue, and white. I was lucky that I was wearing a red hoodie, and my friend, who had already been for a few games, was wearing a Demons scarf.

The energy amongst the fans was palpable. Even though it was my first time experiencing footy, I was witnessing a beacon of Australian sports culture.

Players in action during Melbourne's clash with Geelong in round eight, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

As my first game, I thought my friend and I would be bored until the crowd of strangers got us involved. It was Melbourne's home game, and their people vibed with the theme song, It's a Grand Old Flag, It's a High-Flying Flag. The most surprising thing for me was my Indian friend sitting next to me also vibing on that song.

The majority of the fans in the stadium cheered for the Demons, with many also nursing a frothy cup of beer. Some fans came from Geelong to support the Cats. The feeling was surreal when the ball was bounced into the air and the game started.

The sight for a first-timer was heartwarming and invigorating because people were so emotional. The crowd made me feel like I was one of their own and I forgot that this was my first game. People next to me were explaining things, but their only demand was to cheer up whenever Melbourne scored.

Jainarayan Tiwari (right) and a new friend at the MCG during Melbourne v Geelong in round eight, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

A few Geelong supporters were sitting behind me, and when their team scored, they also had the same enthusiasm as the Melbourne fans.

Since it was my first game, I asked my friend to take my picture so I could share it with my family back in India.

Out of nowhere, a Melbourne fan enthusiastically jumped into the frame and took a picture with me. The gentleman then shook my hand warmly and laughed, instantly striking up a friendly conversation.

We chatted about the game, and I spoke as if I had known this sport for ages. His eyes widened in shock when I revealed it was my first game. This spontaneous and heartfelt interaction made me feel genuinely welcomed and underscored the incredible sense of community and passion that defines AFL fandom.

Melbourne won the game. Bayley Fritsch booted the final goal late in the fourth quarter, and the crowd waited nervously for the full-time siren. When it was blown, the crowd was on their feet and dancing like no one was watching. My friend, who says he is a Melbourne supporter, was well prepared and sang Melbourne FC's anthem.

When I heard my Indian friend, a keen cricket follower like me, singing, I thought he was acting like a local Melburnian.

Bayley Fritsch (left) celebrates his match-sealing goal against Geelong in round eight, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Since then, I've embraced becoming a footy enthusiast, realising that sports make unbreakable bonds, connect people effortlessly, and create a welcoming environment free of judgment in Australia.

The one vital rule for a first-time watcher is that if you don't have your team, other fans will help you select your team, which you must then make a pact to support as long as you live.

This game made me forget that I am far from home because the crowd is with you, even though you are unknown. It's a win-win situation.