From Ashes to Bashes, and a hop across the Tasman

I’m now in New Zealand for ten days, not-so-accidentally timed to take in two England test matches in Auckland and Christchurch. I’m going to very quickly gloss over England’s utterly abysmal first innings batting performance in Auckland (which, thankfully, I didn’t witness) and the shocking recent behaviour of the Australian team in South Africa, and instead write about my experiences watching cricket in Aus and now NZ since the Ashes – in particular the Big Bash.

Here’s something this one-time cricket purist never thought she’d admit: for some weeks after it ended, my evenings felt a bit bare without the Big Bash. I’m sure it’s partly that I’ve not got used to Aussie telly or had as much of a social life yet as I did in London, but I am really very fond of the Bash. When it was first on Sky back home, I watched a bit of it, as there was always a game on in the morning over Christmas when I didn’t have much else to do, but over here, on the right timezone, I’ve fully appreciated the game-an-evening format.

I went to five games: three at the SCG (a men’s/women’s Sydney derby double header and a Sixers men’s standalone game), a men’s game in Melbourne and a women’s match in Hurstville, to the south of Sydney. I accept that the crowd experience may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and some of it isn’t mine, but the music between every ball, lots of replays on the big screen, organised chants and colourful freebies (especially the KFC bucket hats) help to appeal to an audience that may not otherwise watch cricket, especially youngsters. Although there’s plenty of beer on sale and long queues to buy it, the family-friendly, or indeed family-targeted, nature of the Bash is what sets it apart from the T20 Blast, which I’ve been to many times at at the Oval and has (at that venue at least) long since become full of city boys on the lash, with the cricket merely a sideshow. The best atmosphere was arguably at the women’s game, where there were 1,000 spectators, free entry, free hot dogs and cheap beer, great big screen and sound system, and a competitive game won by an Alyssa Healy hundred. I’ll be back next year – including at the games at North Sydney Oval, which is a hop, step and jump from my new home.

In the men’s tournament, neither Sydney side covered itself in glory – though the star-studded Sixers woke up once they were out of contention for the semis, so I jumped on the bandwagon of the Hobart Hurricanes, the plucky underdogs at the start who were inspired by the characterful Anglo-Caribbean Joffra Archer and one of my favourite Australian players George Bailey into a stunning run and ended up runners-up. Timing definitely benefits the BBL too – finishing shortly before the IPL it acts as a bit of a shop window and attracts most top players. That said, it was pleasing to see the likes of Joe Denly perform when selected as late replacements. One of the few things I’d change if I were in change is stop the women’s semis and final needing to be back-to-back with the men’s: allow the top teams the home advantage like the men have and let the games be played in sold-out smaller grounds rather than empty stadia. The WBBL is established enough now that it can stand alone.

The eight-team format means that all the major cities (sorry Canberra and Darwin) have a team, and the two biggest have two. It works because such a high proportion of people live in or near these cities. In England, the picking of 8 teams for the new tournament is bound to be divisive because the population is so much more spread and it remains to be see how well people get behind the new teams. Another thing I’ve seen more of in the BBL this year than before is taking games elsewhere, such as Geelong and Launceston, which has led to sell-out crowds and wider engagement in the regions. The English tournament and its teams need to take note of this.

Right, enough of the short stuff, onto the Eden Park test. Clearly for England not the result desired, despite at least a bit of fight being shown today. Despite the batting being the laughing stock on day one, it’s actually our bowling I’m more worried about – just can’t see how we’re going to bowl decent sides out twice. Eden Park isn’t a pretty stadium, will always feel like a rugby ground with a cricket pitch in it, and is really too big for test matches in NZ in my view, given crowd sizes. That said, I enjoyed watching there. You can get a great view behind the bowler’s arm in the shade in the north stand very cheaply (a four-day pass was $90, less than what I paid for almost every individual day at the Ashes), transport is easy as the rail station is just across to road along with a row of food options for lunch beforehand, there was good beer to be had if you can be bothered walking down to the food vans on the outer oval, and the crowd was friendly, knowledgeable and passionate. The noise as the game reached its climax this evening was immense and belied the numbers present, but this was due to fans excited about a fantastic performance and result (national pride here is huge) rather than an excess of the sauce. As we waited for the train home, there was none of the booze behaviour I’d expect after a day of test cricket back home, especially at night and when the home team won.

Onwards to Christchurch, which will be a very different experience – a small ground in a park with big grassy banks, made into an international venue after the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. It sounds delightful, and given my connection to the city (I lived there for a year in 2006-7) I’m very excited about it. I hope the England team can raise its game!

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