November 30, 2010

It's just not cricket

When I was young I read a tea towel that went like this:
You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side that's been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out... (from Cricket explained)
I've always said I'd rather watch paint dry than cricket. But that was before I came to Brisbane, home of The Gabba (Brisbane Cricket Ground).

If you're a sports fan, there are certain stadiums that you would never pass up the opportunity to visit, especially to watch a prestigious event in the sporting calendar. I'm talking about Old Trafford, Bernabéu, The Oval, Croke Park, Emirates, Wembley, Murrayfield, Azteca, Ibrox, San Siro, Cardiff Arms Park, Stade de France, Camp Nou, San Mamés (my friend supports Athletic Bilbao), Maracanã, MCG...

In recent years, as the England cricket team has progressed from hapless to winning, I have been more entertained by The Ashes. We were therefore never going to pass up the chance to see the first of the 2010-11 Series in our new home town.

Since we've been living in south Brisbane, The Gabba's floodlights have become the landmark when trying to find our way home (Audi sat-nav is beyond budget). The ground also happens to be almost right next to Dan Murphy's (he of the lowest liquor prices possible in otherwise vastly overpriced wine country).

Off we went to the second day of the first Test. On day 1, England had won the toss, were all out for 260, and Australia were 25 for 0. It rained as we got into the taxi to take us to the Norman Hotel for breakfast. I was not confident. (And I was not happy: we were charged a 10 per cent surcharge to pay the taxi fare by card. TEN per cent. Oh land of rip-off middle men.)

'Brisbane's Worst Vegetarian Restaurant' is a bit of an institution. On Ipswich Road in Woolloongabba, it was completed in 1889 in the popular architectural style of the day. Named after Queensland's newly appointed Governor at the time, Sir Henry Norman, it has known several incarnations - including working men's pub, bikers' hangout and now muster station for yellow-clad Aussie Gabba-goers. There were droves of them. They were... not cocky exactly... but more than quietly confident. Some were not content merely with bright 'Cricket Day 2010' T-shirt and Southern Crossed sombrero but also had to drape themselves in the Australian flag – the Union flag draped over one shoulder, of course.

The Gabba seats 42,000. We were on the front row. In the next section of the stand was a battalion of the Barmy Army, who were in fine voice, much to the annoyance of the Aussie fans, until they'd drunk enough XXXX. (I've noticed at other games I've been to – rugby at the Suncorp Stadium, for instance – as well as at this one, that Australians spend just as much time socialising with their mates as watching what's going on on the pitch. Perhaps that's why the English chants irritated them.)


The first wicket of the day didn't fall until the Aussies were on 78, when Watson was caught by Strauss. After lunch, only the second ball of the session saw the Aussie captain Ponting go for 10, closely followed by Katich. 100 for 3: progress – and excitement. Soon, two more wickets saw Australia 143 for 5, which gave England an oh-so-faint hope of a first innings lead. But things slowed down considerably thereafter as Hussey and Haddin bedded in for what turned out to be an enduring partnership on day 3*.

Bad light (shortly followed by rain) ended the day's play prematurely with the Aussies on 220 for 5. We made our way home with a feeling that all was not lost. I'd learned about slips and gullies and nightwatchmen and shoulder arms, and I could nod sagely in agreement with comments such as, 'Ooh, he's bouncing Ponting (who's yet to get off the mark)'.

But – and there is a big but about this Cricket Day 2010 – the irony was not lost on me that The Gabba is the winter home of Aussie rules 'football'. There are certainly more rules at The Gabba than you can shake a cricket bat at. As you queue to get into the stadium, you are faced with this sign:

No bags? What? No bags at all? You're about to spend up to eight hours, possibly in baking hot sun, or rain. Where do you put your sunscreen, water, camera, binoculars, hat, mac? In a plastic see-through bag, apparently (I balk at the memory of all that palaver at airport security). In fact, you can take a backpack in as long as it's only got one zip. How many backpacks have only one zip? And no open plastic bottles? Presumably because you might have added alcohol; but you can take in unopened ones, which is the opposite of the case in Europe, where they're considered to be potential missiles if their tops are firmly secured.

And no umbrellas – now for all the items not on the list – although one lady told us that yesterday she was allowed to take in the umbrella that had just been refused entry. No trumpets (well, no musical instruments of any description, in fact). No cricket balls; or bats, obviously. No baseball caps with certain logos on them. So, despite the length of some lists of rules in this country, they are not exhaustive (see also, Driving me crazy, December 2010). Perhaps you're expected to visit the websites of The Gabba and Cricket Australia to check out their extensive terms and conditions of entry beforehand, but that never occurred to me.

So back we went to the cloakroom, where we had to queue again and fill in forms and sign in blood and generally get very irritated at the lack of an answer to the question, 'What's the problem with zips?'.** Of course, officials here aren't used to being questioned. Most Australians would no more ask, 'Why not' when faced with a ridiculous rule than deliberately swim with Irukandji. Then once more through security, where things moved a little more laxly because by this time it was close to the start of play and some people were pretty annoyed.

As the day wore on, large quantities of XXXX were consumed, and people became even more jovial – except the police, who became much more in evidence. An unsmiling Queensland policewoman made her bulky presence next to where I was sitting: it was intimidating. She sternly warned boisterous young men against writing rude words or drawing rude bits on their mates' T-shirts or bodies, or else they'd have to leave the ground. At the merest whiff of increased movement or noise on the terraces, police would appear, doubtless directed from their control room up by the commentary boxes.

Everything you consume within The Gabba you have to purchase in The Gabba, of course. I was unable to find a water fountain, and small bottles of water cost $4.60 (£2.88 at time of writing). Some stands were 'licenced', others were not. And just in case, as you consumed more, you forgot where you were...



* Hussey and Haddin's partnership produced 307 on day 3, a record for the Aussies at The Gabba. They were all out for 481, giving them a first innings lead of 221. England began their second innings slowly and steadily right at the end of the day. Further impressive partnerships on days 4 and 5, first by Strauss and Cook and then by Cook and Trott, meant England gradually whittled away at their deficit and built up their tally of runs, declaring at 517 for 1 after tea on the final day. The Aussies made 107 for 1 before the captains agreed that the match was a draw. Alistair Cook was Man of the Match, his 235 not out his highest Test score.
** The answer is, so that security people won't have to undo lots of compartments when checking bags on entry.







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