I had been checking the Northern Cricket Union website on and off, hoping to catch a league match, but without success – fixtures are published but I never found a start time. That might be me, or just that spectators are discouraged in Covid times (unlike England, Northern Ireland hasn’t given up and given in to the macho “pchaw, I’ll be alright” crowd). It was with some excitement, then, that I spotted that the Ireland team would be playing in Northern Ireland, after some sell-out T20s in Dublin.
I managed not to over-excitedly book tickets weeks ahead, figuring that the weather might be changeable, but relented with a week to go, in case they hit the 500 limit. When the previous Friday’s match was abandoned after one innings, I was worried, especially with rain in the forecast, but the rain spread itself through the day, and they got a result even after a 2.5 hour delay to the start.
I knew it would be convenient, given the terms and conditions promised free parking at the ground, but still didn’t expect to be able to drive right in and parked at the Stormont car park next door – it’s small, but free all day, and a short walk to the ground. But I could have driven right in and parked more or less by the door, it’s that convenient. Adelaide was good, given you can park very close for $20 on the day, but this is better, and the convenience feels like a thrill after the hassle of attending any large-scale event.
The crowd wasn’t large, with 30-40 in to begin with, swelling to 100 or so in the afternoon, helped by schools and work finishing for the day, so tickets were not hard to come by. They were also a bargain at £15, so I wasn’t overly bothered by the tough refund conditions. So long as 9.5 overs were bowled, you’d see nothing back.
I had brought plenty to read but ended up chatting to fellow cricket lovers who were glad to see a game after cancelling their trip to Manchester – before the game itself was cancelled, and just because England seems too insane a place to visit right now. We passed the time before the game finally started, and then Brendan Taylor walked out for his final international innings. An overcast day didn’t look likely to provide conditions for a glorious end, and so it proved as Josh Little bowled both openers after a slow, solid start. He is a useful weapon.
Rain took the players on and off, with the number of overs gradually nibbled away at, and the usual comedy that cricket’s laws ensure – at one point they played through a shower, walked off as it ended and then didn’t appear again for half an hour as we sat there in the dry.
Covid-wise, we were asked to download the NI app, take a test beforehand and have a mask to hand for going inside, not that we needed to. It was all pretty relaxed on the day, other than us being asked not to handle to ball. Stewarding was in place, but relaxed – it is very straightforward to get on to the pitch, it’s just that almost everyone just doesn’t, as we’ve seen in England recently.
I thoroughly enjoyed the day, even though it was a fairly low-key game that Ireland won fairly easily, despite worries about losing the light if they went on too long, and losing a few wickets without too much batting further down. Chasing was much easier than trying to set a pace, though Ervine would have single-handedly scored plenty if he could have stayed there, and provided most of the runs in any case. The first ball of Ireland’s reply went for four as we strolled back from the ice-cream van, which set the tone, and Stirling did more or less as he pleased. He was given out at least twice and successfully overturned with reviews before eventually bashing one up in the air. Zimbabwe did much worse with reviews, with Ireland reviewing two, maybe three decisions that weren’t given in the field, and players trooping off afterwards (without screens, that was how we knew the decision went against them). The Irish umpires were perhaps being extra careful not to be perceived as being in favour of the home team, backed up by technology.
There were Zimbabwe fans there, too, who chatted happily to Raza when he came close. He was the highlight of the day for me, as I gestured to the umbrella I’d just put up as they played on in rain, and he shouted “Ump! Look! And these are the locals!”
Near as dammit, anyway.
The cricket ended some time before 7 – a long day, as I was there for the 10:30 start which didn’t happen, but one which whizzed by. Having parked at Stormont I took advantage of the last of the light to have a walk around the estate, which is a lovely spot, with the parliament building way at the top of the hill. Apparently the trees are planted 200ft apart at the start of the drive, spreading to 250 near the top, which gives a false perspective and makes the building look closer than it is. Clever. And perhaps good motivation for the runners who were using it for training: “It can’t be that much further! It is, though”.
After Tuesday’s long and mildly stressful – roads! – walk to Red Rocks amphitheatre, I had something easier lined up for Wednesday. I had spotted that the 120 bus, available from near where I stayed, headed all the way East to the Prairie Centre, a shopping centre. In Brighton (Colorado). Just a short walk from there, the Barr Lake state park. Reviews suggested there wasn’t much shade, but a walk round the lake would give me some air and some wildlife. Great!
I headed out and caught the bus. I could have hopped off early, reasonably near the park, but rode it all the way round Brighton to the shopping centre. Figured I’d have a look there at the tents; a cheap and light one would be good as a backup for Washington (state) in a couple of days, and Victoria, BC, after that. Nothing doing, but I wandered off down the provided sidewalks. No one else on them, this looks like a new area, infrastructure being built, ready for people. Not that that many walk in this car-accented culture, but still.
If I were superstitious, I might have taken my slide onto my hand/backside, stepping on some innocuous mud under a flyover, as an omen. But I did not! I could almost see the park, just over there, behind the trees. And the railway line. Hmm, that’s a complication. Railway lines here are nowhere near as protected and fenced-off as in the UK, but still, not to be crossed willy-nilly.
There was no crossing. The road that looked good and close, leading directly to the trail round the lake? Signs at the entrance, saying ‘no lake access’. I plead ignorance to the gods, and walked along it a little further, but those words kept echoing, with them being pretty straightforward, and when I spotted a mailbox I figured I would have to head onto someone’s drive. I avoided the “can you read?” conversation, and turned back.
After another mile or so, with much checking of the map, I realised there was no way through the houses, and headed for main roads. That wasn’t a great walk, but there was space, and no pedestrian prohibition signs. But as I reached a junction that would take me to what looked like the park car park, I checked again. It was another 2 miles. Then I could walk round the lake, and then I’d have to backtrack, along the roads that had already bored me, to get the bus. Plus the road to the car park itself didn’t look great.
I figured I would take the road unknown to me, and head back West, towards where I had come from. Maps.me told me it was about 19km. Maybe I would feel like doing the whole thing.
Some kms were okay, some were not. It depended on the width of the verge, and how much of a hobo I felt like. Fortunately, if you like, people carrying their stuff while looking otherwise respectful are pretty common here, so no-one gave me a second glance – from their cars and trucks, there were no other walkers.
And, after a few hairy bits, such as crossing a 6-lane highway that had lights to stop the main traffic, but not that turning from the side roads to allow walkers to pass, and a walk over a bridge that just had a small shoulder for me to walk on, I hit Henderson, turned on to Henderson road, and was rewarded. Yes, those blue areas on the map are (mostly) a park, and there is a trail that runs through them.
I had pretty much decided by now that I would walk the whole thing, though with one last get out. Soon I would be on 120th street, and the 120 bus, my original ride, heads along there. I thought I might get to the petrol station, “Kum & Go”, refuel and then get the bus – I’d still have walked 11 miles or so.
Buoyed by the sight, and sounds, of gophers (?) at the side of the road, I just kept on walking; finding it was only 5km from the petrol station, and refreshed by cookies/biscuits, it seemed daft not to finish it off.
I was particularly pleased to be back by 4.30pm. The night before, I had realised the Colorado Rockies were baseballing the Houston Astros, and I figured I’d head down. With a 6.30pm start, I could make that fairly easily.
I did make it. I walked slightly the wrong way, discombobulated by my own daftness in working out how much I needed to add to my Myride card for the few trips I had yet to make, and then deciding I was wrong, and not adding that, relying on cash fares (much less convenient). But still, I might have missed the first 10 minutes, mostly due to a slow security line. Not as slick, or as friendly, as Australian stadiums.
The queue for tickets was short, but grew. Unfortunately, they had lost power to their ticketing system. I was glad not to have bought one in advance, to pick up at the “will call” (just me, or is that really not that clear? How about ‘pick up’?) window, as that wasn’t working either. I considered buying online, but was unconvinced that would work, or surely everyone would be doing it – people in the queue were on their phones, but not leaving. Plus, the whole point of being there is to avoid the booking fees – a $22 ticket is reasonable, but buying it online from Ticketmaster and their fees is over $29.
I waited. The family ahead of me bought their tickets online… then couldn’t access them. They moved off; I hope, to take up their case elsewhere. Sure they’ll get the money back, but how annoying. “I’m in” said the ticket lady. She wasn’t. I waited some more. Then she was in! All she could offer was a rooftop ticket, standing only, and I hadn’t eaten more than cookies and breakfast all day. But, stuff it, those are the cheapest tickets, and at $15 that was half the price I had thought about paying online. Plus The Rockies had just scored a home run, so were 1-0 up after 3 innings. I went in, stood behind the first seats I saw for a while, then spotted that the rooftop was high over to my left, and wandered up there for the last 4 innings or so.
It was good. Not great – too many delays, yet with only very short bursts of music or jumps to the crowd for entertainment. The Astros, current champions, seemed like they might be toying with them, as they drew level then went one up. The Rockies drew level after a nice steal of home base. I lost an innings – the Astros’ last – so didn’t quite appreciate the situation, but as one of the Rockies’ better players (judging by the fact that he had his own intro on the screens – not everyone does) hit the plate, with 1 out and a player or two on bases, one score would do it. He swung, he connected, and it flew over the fence. Rockies win! Happy happy; out in plenty of time for the 10.30pm bus, World Foods open to feed me, and time to find a way to buy a single ticket at Union Station (if you don’t have cash to pay on the bus, then the railway station will sell you one. So far as I could tell, the bus station only sells monthly or multi-day passes.).
An Autumn test match, in often Autumnal weather – a risk, but one that more or less came off. That said, the clocks went back on the Sunday morning, before day 3, and the last three days started half an hour earlier. But not an hour earlier, which would have been effectively the same time. The change was only announced a day or two beforehand, suggesting it just hadn’t been thought of. Ultimately, that cost a pile of cricket, not so much on the last day, when England under bowled James Anderson but rushed through overs with Root and Malan contributing and got through more than the 98 mandated because of a clear day. But the night before, play had ended early because cloud cover made it too dark, and over 20 overs were lost.
I missed the first two days, heading down to Wanaka for the parkrun, but the match was nicely poised on day three. It was still so on day 5, with England needing all 10 wickets to win. They would have wanted 2 or 3 the evening before, denied by stubborn openers and a curtailed session. That mattered less after 2 balls, when Broad removed Laval with a loosener, chipping to mid wicket, and Williamson with a decent ball. That made up for the lack of wickets on the Monday, but ultimately New Zealand held out. Although England finally took a wicket in the 100+th over of the day, by then there were only minutes left, Wagner wisely reviewed it to kill a couple of them, Southee meandered out only to be told there was no need. New Zealand picked up a great draw and a deserved series win, albeit one that was secured in the first couple of hours of day 1 at Auckland, after which England gradually improved and were the better team (if marginally) for most of the second test. They didn’t take 20 wickets in either test, though, again looking toothless, though at least the changed attack for test 2 saw wickets for the support acts, Wood and Leach, the latter’s celebrations particularly joyous.
As for the supporter experience; it was great, though cold after 2 or 3 in the afternoon. The wind whips across Hagley park, and finds you wherever you sit. I was in a jumper from 2 each day, even the sunny ones, and by the close was glad to switch into running gear and warm up by running the four miles home. The ground is beautiful, apparently one of 6 (or so?) ’boutique’ grounds around New Zealand. There’s only one permanent structure, covering maybe 10% of the boundary, with some stands erected to provide seating opposite the main building, a few large umbrellas for shade and otherwise everyone sitting on the raised banking. As TMS put it, 5-6,000 makes it look full, where at Eden Park even twice that looks empty. I wandered round at different times, partly for a different view and, later, to keep warm. During the lunch break, supporters were invited onto the field, whereon those with kids would play on the outfield and those without would stand at one end, near the pitch, gazing and looking for clues. Brilliant.
The first day-night test in New Zealand’s and success for the home team. I walked to the ground, a few kilometres through Ponsonby’s trendy streets and into residential areas. Outside the ground, all was quiet – this was a significantly more understated environment than during the Ashes. No high-fiving welcomers or face painters here, though there was a mini festival on the ground next door (where domestic cricket is played).
Eden Park, North side.
Eden Park sponsorship – people, people not everywhere.
That all helped it feel nice and low-key, just what I needed after the high intensity and excitement of cricket in Australia. Australia have gone on to make their own cricket a little too exciting, to the great amusement of the crowd here.
Meanwhile, in the concrete jungle that is Eden Park, the first day dawned bright and blue, England were put into bat – apparently a 50/50 decision from Kane Williamson – and were soon collapsing in a heap. Much as I’d hoped for decent innings from Stoneman and Cook to steady them both, it was mightily entertaining. I was already tending toward being neutral as the Barmy Army sung, sparking memories of witless repetitive songs, England flags draped around the ground with football club names on (?!) and one twit ahead of me had a Union Jack flying, which at least includes Wales, but seemed particularly ignorant on a day when Scotland were playing in the fabulously competitive and ridiculously sad world cup qualifying competition.
There was an English couple next to me, spotted as such for the integrity of their packed lunch and the miserable look on their faces throughout (even before play) who disappeared at lunch and never returned. They might have had a ticket for just the day, but it seems unlikely as everyone else in that area had four day passes, which created a nice collegiate atmosphere. It was possible to sit anywhere you wanted, though, and some people did move around. I had Kiwis next to me, who shared their food. They also shared their American who, in the absence of a relative, agreed to come on the first day. They expected him to fall asleep, but those lively first couple of hours got him up and he was watching for the whole day, while we chatted about emigration and the states of the countries we had left behind. In his case, permanently. It wasn’t actually his first cricket experience as he has been in the country for 14 years and been to ODIs.
Days 2 and 3 were more frustrating. The rain didn’t fall throughout, but with occasional heavy downpours and often enough to stop the pitch drying. The equipment – the heavy rope and a large hair dryer on a tractor – wasn’t up to drying the outfield, but I’m not sure anywhere would have done better. Meanwhile New Zealand crept on in their first innings and the crowd chatted, other than some frustration towards the end of the day when the inspections seemed too late – after an hour and a half of no rain, they were only just heading for the meal break, due to inspect in half an hour and maybe play another half an hour later.
Ed Sheeran, in town for a gig, was in the ground, spotted an Ipswich flag on our side of the ground and despatched a minion to buy 10 pints for the owner. When I spotted a man with an earpiece wandering through before me I expected something odd was happening, but could never have guessed at the truth (and had to have it explained to me later). I just missed out as the Ipswich fan (Bob) shared his largess around, but it all added to the gaiety of the day.
Eden Park looked prettier under lights, and sunset was always a pleasure. The crowd ebbed and flowed, with Saturday’s rain spoiling any chance of a big crowd, but Sunday better. It was never anywhere near full – and definitely not “a million people” as a kid behind me guessed on Monday – but despite spaces, there were enough people to make a noise from time to time, even if it wasn’t sustained, even with England 27-9. And not enough people for a Mexican wave, which was nice.
By the end of the test I was sitting with Mark from my hostel and Daniel, who had started off a row or two ahead. Daniel is a fellow parkrunner so I had been able to pass on my new knowledge – Western Springs is cancelled – and help him get to Cornwall Park on Saturday morning. I didn’t help him pick up autographs at the end, but he did that on his own as the NZ players came out and walked the line. It’s a funny job now – not just autographs, but also grinning into cameras. Those pictures end up with lots of people with happy photos of cricketers smiling next to them, but the reality is that they wander along a line, smiling obediently and then moving on. Other perhaps than Wagner, who took the time to get some kids into position and his arms round them for a picture. He is a full-blooded cricketer and the crowd love him. Part way through day 4, as he steamed in to relatively little effect, we didn’t understand why, but he gives good variety to the bowlers, and despite a relative lack of pace, he attacks every ball. Plus it worked, as neither Stoneman nor Stokes could resist the wrong shot for ever.
Even watching England lose (again) was a good experience. A bargain NZD$90 for a four-day pass, which included entry to day 5 (which otherwise, with a full day expected, was full price, though they made the final session free as the game came to an end.
In a day or two I may look back on these words and shake my head sadly, but for now the cricket is full of possibility. Finally England look rock-solid, thanks to Alastair Cook not just scoring a few runs, but marching to a century. Australia’s first strike bowler out injured, his replacement, Bird, looking accurate and testing, but not so quick, and Cummins suffering an illness that robbed him of 5mph. Today, for the first time, the scoreboard did not contain one of ‘match fastest balls’ or ‘fastest bowlers in this match’, that information deemed unimportant while two of Australia’s bowlers were missing and Broad, whisper it, had hit 89mph anyway.
I arrived in Melbourne on Christmas Eve and rode the train out to Coburg, where my AirBnB room is. Coburg seems a nice suburb, a mix of nations, houses squashed in in places, but rows of neat lawns linked by concrete pavements, with a path along Merri Creek behind the houses to give a bike route into the city. My host showed me round, then disappeared. He has only lived here a couple of months, and has already converted the lounge into a bedroom. I picked him for a gamer, up late to enjoy more competition from more populous countries in different timezones, aiming to rent out rooms so as to supplement work. In fact, given that he didn’t surface till 4pm, I wonder if he is aiming not to work at all, though it is Christmas and even the Aussies get a day or two off.
At any rate, a tram ride on the no.1 took me into the city and despite walking the wrong way from the central station at first, I was in the ground before the first ball was bowled. Not quite the same spine-tingling feeling as I’d had in 2013, partly because I’d had to rush a bit, only soaking up any atmosphere at the end of my walk as I finally joined the throngs of people heading in, and partly because I only had a general admission ticket, and didn’t bother heading up to the 4th level, immediately finding a standing spot behind seats on level 1 which I figured would be the best view I was likely to get.
As ever, the Guardian do a good job of summing up the atmosphere. I suspect many haven’t noticed, but with a rolling crew of Vic Marks, Selvey and Gideon Haigh giving the many others involved something to aspire to, I reckon their coverage is the best. Certainly the beeb and Times have spotted their over by over coverage and done a Sky on it (that is, taken the concept and yet not managed to do it as well as the original despite greater resources). At any rate, I enjoyed a variation on the classic ‘watch on telly with radio commentary’ (not so doable now the TV has a satellite delay, though I haven’t tested it here, where cricket can still be popular among kids because it is on free-to-air TV), with ‘watch in the ground, read the over-by-over’.
Day one was slow. Not actually ‘boring’, as the half-English, half-Australian lady called it, very disparaging of Warner finally slowing down as he neared his century; “I get that it’s good for his stats’. It seemed very unfair, but he scored so quickly early on, that his slowing later may have looked super slow. The greatest moment, for the noise it generated and the pure theatre, came when England, with Tom Curran’s regular slower ball to confuse, set Warner up nicely to spoon one in the air with a wall of fielders in front and he duly did on 99, caught by Broad. Cue a huge noise from the England fans, who were still singing as the replay showed a possible no-ball. Now the noise swung as the Aussies drowned out the England fans. The noise! My goodness. Brilliant.
Warner was out soon afterwards, his innings looking better and better as England totally slowed Australia’s scoring. They’ve not always had two batsmen motoring at the crease, and that’s almost been their secret – Bancroft was way out of form, barely contributing runs, but England still had to bowl to him, and meanwhile Warner will always score, so just hang in there and if nothing else, tire out the bowlers. Several of their partnerships have been, or have started, in similar one-sided fashion.
It was slow, though, and I wandered outside for lunch, not returning immediately. Four lads were playing a boisterous game on the green sward right outside the MCG, and I was impressed that they were happy to let 5 other lads join in after they’d first walked by to eat, then come back. You might expect some rutting heads, or inter-group competitiveness, but they passed the bat round happily. Meanwhile a family had joined to my right, their boys hovering on the side, and soon a couple of the lads waved them into proper fielding positions, in the thick of it. With the next wicket, the eldest was given the bat, the bowler’s mark was moved forward, and his brother was given the ball. Fielders crowded round, so it was competitive, even intimidating, but they’d included the boys so effortlessly and so simply that it was a beautiful thing. Other youngsters were included, too, the bat moving round the group quickly. Lunch ended inside the stadium and everyone moved off. The parting shot reached my ears, fading on the wind as they left, “yeah, but the real game’s out here, right mate?”
With Australia well set at the end of the day, I patted myself on the back at my good judgment in only having tickets for the first two days. Dare we hope to get Australia out for 350? Well, it’s possible. It seemed more likely that we’d all watch Australia bat, then put England in, we’d hope again and they’d lose at least one wicket too many.
I didn’t rush, though, and a huge roar greeted me as I, um, got my bags checked to go in. “Smith out bowled”, said the bloke from St Albans cricket club behind me “I hate you” – this to his mate, who perhaps had insisted on slightly too lavish a breakfast. I’ve hoped before, though, and now the scene was set for the Marshes to do the damage instead, with Ali bowling and leaking runs. The Australian crowd booed, the English hmmed in anticipation as Ali was swapped for Broad, and it started to happen. Three Australian batters pulled the ball onto their stumps, finally the luck that England needed. Crucially, Cummins looked comfortable but for once didn’t have a mainstream batsman for comfort, and Broad and Anderson were on to give nothing away. I had a seat today, and watched from there up until lunch. Broad appealed loudly for LBW against Marsh, and it wasn’t given. But something seemed different – normally he looks confident, but with an air of bullying ‘come on, give it to me’. This time his face was much more ‘but, but – that was out!’. They reviewed it, and sure enough, it was plumb. Never mind hearing the noise when Warner was repealed, I was in the ground when Broad got a review right.
314-6, and the OBO commented ‘What England would give for another before lunch’. They got two, Paine out despite looking totally comfortable, and lunch-watchman Bird out despite killing time with a review. One more and they could have extended play, but it didn’t matter – ill Cummins was next out, and with Lyon and Hazlewood at the crease, for a change the tail wasn’t wagging, and it just felt like a matter of time till the last wicket fell. And it was.
The sun had crept over my position during lunch, so I made the most of sitting down, watching it creep toward me, then stood up. I ended up next to a Southerner, here for just a week to fulfil a lifelong dream to see this match. He had also been sat in a sunny seat early on, surrounded by Aussies. When Smith chopped on he announced ‘see, no problem with our fast bowlers – he’s been beaten for pace!’. He liked the joke; I heard it three times. He was in for four days no matter what, but we enjoyed the opening part of the innings, hoping for a 50 partnership but not getting it, Stoneman out after a solid beginning. Something seemed different with Cook, though – he looked comfortable. Lack of pace in the attack? Helped by there finally being a sense that if they see off one bowler (Hazlewood) it will get easier? Or just the result of practice? It is a very odd thing that when things are bad (like England losing 3-0) everything can be painted in a bad light. I’d read in the week that Cook had spent hours and hours in the net since the last test, and how that showed he was short on confidence.
Normally, you’d just point to it showing his level of desire. And that looks more like the outcome – he has hit a groove. It felt different, and the Barmy Army started up. Their song is a dirge, really, but starts well – ‘We are the army, the Barmy Army’, which you can sing at different speeds to good effect. As more people join in, the noise of that builds. Then the rest of the tune throws it away a bit. And they’re not ‘men-al’ at all. But still, the noise was magnificent, as first 50, then 70, then 100 people sang, England fans making their way to the group to join in, raise arms and sing as Cook moved towards his fifty.
Australians, meanwhile, were drinking, and hiding the beer cups, to build beer snakes. A few popped up later on in the day, to great cheers and laughter. Apparently it is a police matter, and the men in black appeared to take down pesky snakes. Frankly, the police did themselves no favours throwing people out; presumably for ‘disorderly conduct’, though I would like to see a lawyer challenges any justification, it seems tenuous to me. A snake of cups might be mildly distracting, but the crowd loves it, they make a noise, they link up chains of cups and that’s it. The ones at the Gabba got much bigger, and were mostly allowed to peter out. By all means stop it getting out of hand and spreading where people don’t want it, but the sight of police officers pushing people around, removing whoever they’d decided was the ringleader (snake builder?) just looked pathetic at best, and bullying at worst. After a while the stewards dealt with them, which was at least more in keeping with the level of offence. Meanwhile I had a small group of Aussies behind me who had the Aussie foghorn voice. There are usually a few of these, with tremendous volume. This lot moved from singing ‘AAAA-LAAAA-STAAAAAAIIIIIR’ to a great long sledge, “A-LAAAA-STAIR!!! YOU’RE THE ONLY CAPTAIN IN HISTORY TO HAVE STAYED IN THE TEAM WHILE THEIR MATE HAS TAKEN OVER! IF YOU WERE AUSTRALIAN YOU’D BE PLAYING IN THE BIG BASH!”. Which was pretty amusing, partly for being so convoluted, partly for the confidence involved in building for so long at that volume to such a specific punchline.
As the day ended, it was all about the landmarks. A lad next to me, only partly watching, reckoned Root would get his 50 and Cook end on 99. I thought the latter generous – Cook was only in the 80s, he’d just knuckle down and aim to be there tomorrow. But the lad nearly got it right. Cook pushed a single from the first ball with four overs to go, waved away a second run and left Root with all five to finish it off. He didn’t. But come the final over, Smith came on to bowl himself, with Cook on 93. Yeah, fair enough, tempt him, but also, probably, tie him down, unwilling to risk anything against a lesser bowler. Yet the first ball was a juicy full-toss, smacked to the boundary, and Cook was on 97. A clip to leg and they hustled, getting 2. Surely! Surely he’d get 100, and an awful lot of people would have to eat their words…and yes, Cook made it to 104, that last over ended up as a gift.
Plenty of room for it all to go wrong, but for now, the Australians don’t look indomitable, their use of the review system is not the best, and England have had an honest-to-goodness properly good day – excepting any ‘score 100 off 100 balls and lose no wickets’ pure fantasies, all pretty much as good as anyone could have hoped for.
I was staying in Melbourne on Thursday, but hadn’t planned to go to the cricket. Given the situation, I figured I ought to, finally feeling some confidence in the team. The MCG is so big that other than perhaps the first day, you can pretty much just turn up and buy a ticket. Doing so also avoids the handling fees, which I had also done with a theatre ticket the evening before (Book of Mormon, later in January, woo hoo!). Another general admission ticket for $30 AUD and I was in, standing on level 1 for a while before finding a seat up on level 4.
It was fairly cloudy all day, with a burst of sun in the morning and afternoon, and rain for my walk home. A fabulous day’s cricket, starting to swing Australia’s way as Root gave his wicket away, furious with himself, throwing his gloves to the floor behind the boundary and leaving them there as he stomped off. When Malan was out – though not, had he only reviewed it – it was in the balance, and 20 odd runs from Bairstow and skittish Ali weren’t really enough. Ali at least got a few runs, but was in a hurry – one reporter commented ‘I hope he at least caught his train’. He was shown how to do it by Woakes, who struggled, scoring singles with Cook, but they laid the foundations, hitting a partnership of 50. And that wasn’t the whole point, as their work in using up overs had aged the ball and tired the bowlers, which meant that after Curran came in for only a short innings, Broad could ride a roughing up by the quick bowlers before taking us back to 2010-11, scoring first a useful 20, then going on and putting on a 100 partnership with Cook. For a while, they batted and took runs at will – apparently they’ve never batted together before, but they formed a good partnership, calling and running well together. They’ve known each for long enough for that to work, I suppose.
I thought Cook scoring a century yesterday was satisfying and memorable, but English and Australian alike stood to applaud the 200 when he got there. Magnificent.
Even Broad’s dismissal was entertaining. Khawaja took a decent catch on the dive, rolling over it to cast some doubt, so Broad reviewed the decision. Replay after replay followed, and it was never going to be totally clear. Broad put his helmet back on, in case any of the Aussies weren’t going to boo him off and get him worked up – he said it was hard to overturn a ‘soft decision once given’ when interviewed, but it looked out to me and the Aussie next to me*.
But still, the Barmy Army stayed in full voice, hardly stopping singing, and it was magnificent. By the end of the day, with fewer England boundaries to cheer, they adopted Jackson Bird. As he whirled his arms, warming up, they gave a big wooooooaaaaaa, with ahhhhhh following the full action. He carried on warming up, then stopped one mid-action, to huge applause. When he bowled, to Anderson, I think he’d have got a huge cheer had he got him out. And during the final over, the song was ‘We love you Jackson, we do’, followed by ‘We love you Nathan, we do’. Just great.
* with hindsight, he wasn’t though. That ball is dropped.
On my second night in MacDonald Park, I was joined by three English travellers, Jim, Ian and Irene, who were also here for the cricket. All are from the North, like most of the English people I’ve met here. And they had a car, so I had friends to ride in and out of Adelaide with, at least until the evening of the 3rd night, when they moved on. I missed them – not just for the lift, but also the camaraderie, and hearing stories from Ian (with the other two being a couple, we tended to end up walking and sitting together) of life in Cheshire. I told him a friend played cricket for Surrey seniors and he told me a story or two. He also spent the next day in a polo shirt which let me know (he hadn’t mentioned it) that Cheshire Seniors were champions in 2011, 12 and 16.
Adelaide is a pleasant, boutique city, albeit one which wears it’s homelessness and few drunken, troubled locals in plain sight. The Oval, too, is quite a ground; despite redevelopment, it isn’t the concrete basin that the Gabba appears to some (though that is also a very functional, pleasant ground to be in, if not to look at). They have preserved the original scoreboard and made a feature of the stands, which undulate. For just $99, you can take a tour up to the top and walk along the undulations to see come cricket. Seems excessive to me, but there is a steady stream of people heading there. For the opening day, with Adelaide society picnicking outside and walking around, well dressed, they used the space for singers (sadly I can’t remember what they sang), which was magnificent. Add in the anthems and it was quite a show.
I was sat in a $56 dollar ‘restricted view’ seat. It was fabulous. It was right by the pitch entrance for the ground staff and TV commentators, with the view restricted only by a metal bar which blocked the boundary to my right if I slouched. KP, Warne, Slater, Nicholas all waited nearby before heading on to the pitch, while Mr Cricket was unbothered by autograph hunters as he did his bit, and Gillespie came to sit in the crowd on the other side of the entrance, seeing very little for 10 minutes while he signed whatever people brought him. On day 1, right behind me was sat a narrowly post-pubescent Aussie teen, with voice cracking at times of excitement, and a determination to ask questions of the passing commentators. We were interrupted a couple of times for rain, waiting some time for our area to move under cover, and passed the time of day. On day 2, I moved down three rows… and so did he. By now we were friends, so I got the full benefit. He is a Man U fan, too, so that keeps my perfect record of finding one in every country. My housemates are Man City fans, so much more pessimistic, “if there were cups for cock-ups…”.
On day 3, by which time it seemed to be heading to a quick and inevitable England defeat, I was up in the large stand which is a pretty good view for $30. My housemates had paid more, it seemed, for a worse view further up; I’m not sure how that works. On day 3 they had $125 tickets, also up on level 5, though I assume they were at least towards the front of it. I’d just say that unless you’re in the double-letter seats (row UU, say, rather than row K, where I was), the view is good, you can see the screens and mostly make out the announcements.
For England, it was a frustrating test. Australia built a foundation without really looking certain to pass, say, 350, until it became clear England were never going to take a cluster of wickets – they fell regularly, but always singularly, so everyone got runs. Lots of bat-passing, though I did read a comment from Vaughan, that they were bowling ‘prettily’, which means the ball isn’t pitched up, so beats the bat but without really testing the batsman. When England batted they started quickly – if nothing else, it is already clear Stoneman brings runs where Carberry brought crease-occupation – and everyone looked comfortable, until they got out. It really is remarkable how every Australian quick bowler sneaks just up to or over 90mph on the technology (144.8) when that used to be regarded as rare. Maybe the pitch is stodgy, but none of England’s front line bowlers looked immediately discomfited by pace, and pulled the ball down, looking casual from the side. They even disturbed Lyon’s rhythm early on.
All of which sounds like a success, but it wasn’t, not at all, until Overton showed that yes, he can bat, and that might be enormously important – rather than England being 7 batsmen and then bam, the innings is over, now they may have 9 possible scorers with Broad a wildcard. These are all the positives, though, with the reality being that Australia made 442-8 declared, England 227 all out (though it might have been 150) and despite Australia not enforcing the follow-on and adding only 138, only one result is likely.
Day-night tests are interesting. If the over-rate were kept to, there would only be an hour and a half or less in actual darkness here, with play due to end at 9, but everyone bowls slower than that, so 9.30 is likely. Because of rain delays we had extra extra play on day 1, with 10.10 the close, which is pretty late.We then dashed over the footbridge to make the 10.26 bus replacement to get to the car. It is perfectly possible on a good day, though, to head out during the dinner break (after 6) and wander along the Torrens in the sunshine. Day 3 and my friends were heading for McLarenVale in the evening, so we headed there in the car beforehand (I went along for the ride) before deciding to just park outside the ground. Are there any test grounds in England where you can park right outside for $20 (£12ish)? It felt pretty good, despite the steward’s vague parking instructions causing a minor domestic while Ian and I stayed quiet in the back.
An admission. By midway through day 3, despite being cheered up by Woakes and Overton, I figured I had seen how this match was going. I headed down to level 1 and watched, standing, from down there while England’s innings was polished off quickly. Broad and Anderson were obviously bowling well, but one wicket wasn’t enough return, and I headed off at 8, hopping on a bus with a cheery but small Australian crowd. Khawaja was nearly out first ball – the knowledgeable Aussie stood next to me, from whom I learned a few things, admiringly called Anderson’s delivery ‘a jaffa’ as it passed just outside the line of off stump, passing between bat and body – but batted well after that and I figured I’d be home before my kind hosts convinced themselves to stay up late and wait for a call for a lift. Remove the doubt, I figured – they are so generous, that when they wrote to me to say they’d bend over backwards to make my stay enjoyable, they meant it. And so I missed three England wickets and a testing session. I also decided to watch day 4 on TV, rather than head back into the city, and that might have been the day with most success for England. Not that there has been a really duff day, even for the most rabid England fan. If they can keep their heads up, they may stay competitive till the end.
On Saturday morning, at parkrun, an Aussie runner said ‘so perhaps today we’ll find out who is going to win this test’. That was day 3, and we didn’t. I was sat high off to one side, in a $70 seat, as I had been for day 2. Just above the pool, where on day 2 I’d been round to the left, next to the big screen. And right in front of the loud but entertaining Aussies (who, unlike England, got quieter as the day went on – either booze shut them up, or the regular visits by smiling police officers did a job). Unfortunately the England fans in front of me weren’t on best behaviour. There are a few cricket traditions, drinking is one, which leads to making beer snakes – the best I saw was to my left on day 4, with people jogging over from other areas of the stands to add their collections, and the snake reaching almost the entire height of the tier. Then there’s the collective ‘scull’ exhortations, cries of ‘scull, scull, scull‘ going up whenever a punter comes back to the stands with a round, and most people pause and down one, or some, as best they can. The keen pour it into their shoe, a Gabba tradition, and drink it from there. And an Englishman in front of me did 5 in a row, which got some big cheers.
Sadly, 10 minutes later, in response to some ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ cheers, he and a friend were singing ‘No Surrender to the IRA’.
For crying out loud. The Brexit process may well rekindle tensions there, but that song never helped anything. Behind and to my right was a group of English blokes in fancy dress, singing loudly and showing off the witlessness of the standard English songs. Unlike the Aussies, they were unable to sing songs without swear words, which is a pity – it’s truly impressive that despite the macho nature of much of the commentary, and even the culture, the Aussies have worked on the public face of something like cheering at a mass public event, and made some things emphatically unacceptable. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good swear, finding newspapers that asterisk those words out excruciatingly embarrassing, for instance, but yelled a top volume in a public place, it can be intimidatory. Nice work Aussies – see also, general acceptance of other lifestyles, and growing popularity of womens’ cricket.
To day 4, then, at which I had a bargain $30 ticket. That put me in, from memory, ‘partial shade’, which meant ‘shade for the first hour’, down close to the pitch – a good view, but you get more perspective from a little higher up. The stadium was only half full or so, though, so when I got too hot I moved up to tier two, above the pool, where I’d been before. Some people had paid a lot more than my ticket prices – I suppose they were in the always shaded areas, perhaps not quite so side on as me. But I was happy with where I sat, even if I didn’t meet an Olympian’s father (Brian Cook, father of Beach Volleyballer Natalie) this time. I did see Gladstone Small on my way into the ground again, though, so that was exactly as in 2013.
By the end of day 4, it was finally obvious who was going to win. In the end, Australia, at a canter having just nudged ahead at the end of day 3. It’s all much more positive for England than 2013-14, but the result could well end up the same.
Rain came to Brisbane, heavily, two days later, as I left. They’d still have had time enough to finish the game had that happened on day 4, but earlier in the match it might have changed the shape of things.
Sport. Australia has many strengths, the weather is generally warm, if more variable than the picture postcard version suggests, the people are friendly and there’s a good energy to the place. But it may do sport best of all. I was here for the Ashes anyway, then happened to check the website for the Rugby league world cup to see what was going on, only to find the first semi-final would be on in Brisbane while I was there. The final is here, too, but not till next week. And England are playing in Auckland, so I couldn’t so easily see that one. Those minor what-ifs aside, I figured why not go to the semi-final as well as day 2 of the cricket.
So I did. It’s now day 3 of the test match, and we’re no clearer as to who is winning, though Australia have their noses in front. The rugby was a clear win for Australia, as expected, and with the fervent Fiji supporting sections unable to change the tide, much as occasional bursts of creativity from Fiji were yelled at. A fair few English accents in those yells, too.
Both the Gabba and the Brisbane stadium are great. Easy to get to (I think – actually I walked to the Gabba and then from there to the other), friendly police keeping traffic and people separate, friendly security checking for aerosols, alcohol and those oh-so-dangerous unsealed water bottles, and friendly stewards welcoming you in. Each stadium is modern, easy to navigate and welcoming in any case, but so much friendly help doesn’t half make a difference.
A great sporting day. My favourite memory was the Fiji team’s pre-match song, which was beautiful and has me dreaming of Pacific Islands.
By the third day you’re either used to the journey or sick of it. Maybe both. It is slightly under 4km from hostel to railway station (though the hostel manager reckoned it was 5, which must please those who take it on without benefit of a GPS to set them straight), and I walked in again, this time wandering in to the Basin Reserve before 12. It was busy – I had wondered whether the Blackcaps’ perilous position might have kept people away, but the grassy bank was full of families enjoying the weather. The official temperature of 21 degrees seemed a bit cool in the scorching sun, but I was cold in the shade so I guess they had it right.
The moral of that paragraph is: measurements are good.
By lunch NZ were in trouble, and at 94 for 5, with Corey Anderson out for two and swishing his bat in frustration, I thought it might all be over by tea. The ground PA is loud enough for everyone to hear, but giving career averages for this team doesn’t fill everyone with confidence; I don’t think a batsman in the team has an average over 40. But McCullum and Watling dug in. They were still together when I left at tea. I left, for an ice cream and a train ride home, and they were still together at the close, with New Zealand now 6 runs ahead. 6 for 5 isn’t so good, but with a big partnership taking shape they were in a good position. In fact, at the close the following day, Watling was out after hitting a century, McCullum had another double century and Neesham had hit 67, NZ 325 ahead with 4 wickets to go. They only need a draw to win the series, so no incentive to go crazy, but 325 in a day is already a lot to chase, and with 5 quicks they are in a great position to put pressure on an India side looking to win.
I did the station-hostel walk one last time and was back in time to run along the beach into the sunset. Every one different, hostel manager Barb had told me; frankly tonight’s wasn’t as dramatic as the night before’s red extravaganza, but, well, it’s February and I’m running on the beach in the last of the summer sun. I could live here.
Blackcaps vs India, sicond tist
Wellington, New Zealand
Wellington, New Zealand
NZ don’t really play enough tests to get their eye in, and this is the second and final test. Nonetheless, they won the first, scoring over 500, bowling India out for just over 200 the getting skittled for just over 100 and scraping a win by 40 runs. I wasn’t sure what to expect-India ought to be too strong, but their teamsheet is a little unfamiliar, with no real stars in the bowling, and the batting looking to rely on Pujara, Kohli and Dhoni.
Tickets. I got the idea it would be cheaper here when I spotted that a day ticket was under $45. Even better, sign up early for half price tickets; buying a ticket within 5 days of them going on sale got a day one for $23. I couldn’t decide whether I’d want to go to one, two or three days, so got a match pass for $45. Credit card surcharge, $1.23, surcharge for whichever option I picked from at venue pickup, print your own or text – 0. Exemplary. The ground only has two stands, so half of the place has a steep grassy bank for general admission punters to pick a spot on. It wasn’t jammed, especially in the stands, but there were enough people that the odd cheer, and the collective groan when a wicket seemed to fall just before lunch was loud enough.
India won the toss and on a warm day – it was about 21 degrees, scorching when the sun broke through – with lots of cloud they put New Zealand in and had them in plenty of trouble. Taylor was out, Latham in at 4, and he was in and out before lunch.
Lunch: 51-4 from 26 overs. It would have been worse, with Williamson caught from the last ball before the break, but it was overturned for a no ball. The same was to happen later in the day to Neesham.
Runs flowed a little better after lunch, but more in a ‘slip back into one day mode’ than any test style accumulation. At least India didn’t have the same pressure as before lunch, when Sharma came on and bowled two wicket maidens, Zaheer kept it dry from the other end and Sharma’s run was broken not by him failing to take a wicket, but when he conceded a run in the over he took his third wicket. Notably, I was there on the day Williamson finally didn’t make it to 50, out for 47.
Kiwi fans next to me seemed surprised that Sharma, with 5 wickets, had no slips when he returned just before tea. But he was bowling to Southee, who isn’t a man to play gently down the line, and as he swung and missed through the over, surely the thinking was pretty clear.
Tea: 166-8 from 49 overs, the run rate soared and the over rate dipped, with only three bowlers used until Jadeja bowled the last before tea.
After some more big bangs from Southee, NZ were out shortly after tea for 192, Ishant Sharma taking test best figures of 6-51. Meanwhile the crowd to my left had brought flowers in and were occupying themselves – on Valentines day – picking out lone women walking by the grassy bank to which general admission gets you access and handing them a flower. Cue applause from the bank. With the majority of an okay crowd on the banks, there were no Mexican waves, and just one token effort to get a beach ball going. The old man behind me had a terrible attack of the fake laughs to whatever commentators on the radio were saying, and I was glad when he moved.
NZ took a wicket early, and one late, but at the close India were 100-2 and looking strong. The second debutant, Neesham – the other was Latham, Rod’s son – had looked a decent batsman at 8, and underplayed when listed as having pace ‘medium’. The speed gun’s readings weren’t used often, but 138km popped up next to him. I didn’t see enough to know whether they have genuine all rounders in Anderson and Neesham at 6 and 8, or more typical NZ bits and pieces cricketers. I took myself back to Paraparaumu, and a full hostel, with a new bag full of the clothes I had left at Justin’s, in Sydney. I have long sleeved clothes again.