A Barmy Weekend

Following my recent admission that I’m rather fond of the Big Bash, here’s another thing this one-time purist didn’t expect to say: I recently watched most of a test match with the Barmy Army…. and loved it.

This came to pass because, coincidentally, Jo, a friend from the UK, was on the Barmy Army tour in NZ. Having met up fairly briefly in Auckland, the general admission seating arrangement in Christchurch gave the opportunity to chat further and for me to have some company when I’d otherwise be alone. So I hunted Jo and her Barmy mates out on day one and set up camp. And I kept coming back.

Like any England cricket fan, I’m familiar with the Army and love both the support they give the team through thick and thin and the atmosphere they bring. But I’m used to keeping a bit of distance (sitting upstairs in the same stand in Melbourne was perfect, for example) and singing along under my breath. Full disclosure: I do have previous. Eleven years ago when I was young, very keen to be seen on TV by my friends back home, and more than a little inebriated, I chanted and danced like a loon on the embankment at the Bellerive Oval with a smattering of others (few of the Army survived that long into an epic tour), as England snatched an unlikely ODI victory, the first win of the whole ill-fated 2006/7 tour. But I’d always thought that Barmy day, which ended with getting trollied with the England team, a glorious and frivolous one-off from my youth. I’m delighted to be wrong!

For four days over Easter weekend, I sang, was on telly several times and, above all, watched a lot of cricket with fellow fans who love and appreciate the game. It was that which struck me most of all, the appreciation of the game. Yes, there was singing, but not incessantly so by any means. In between the songs, I overheard (and sometimes joined) conversations about the English batting order, the merits or otherwise Neil Wagner’s short-pitched bowling, and the appropriateness of the punishments meted out to Australia’s ball tamperers.

Unlike in the non-Barmy seats in Auckland, people didn’t generally move around in front of others in the middle of overs (my personal cricket-watching bugbear). And, although there was of course alcohol around, I didn’t see anyone I’d describe as remotely drunk. Indeed, the atmosphere was so family friendly that there were three or four mini Barmies in attendance, aged between about 1 and 5. Not a bit the boozy, lairy, chanty, sweary crowd that some might expect. I also saw and spoke to several people who were travelling alone, for whom the Army was an opportunity for company and new friendships. Evening events, including one with Aggers and another with Graeme Swann during the Christchurch test, certainly add to that. I have to say I regret not tagging along to the Swanny do!

Add this fun to being in a city I lived in and loved for a year before it was hit by earthquakes, and at a beautiful ground in a middle of a park watching a very competitive test match, you can probably understand why I didn’t want to leave at tea on Day 4 for my flight home. So thank you, Jo, Jen, Gill and the Barmies for a fabulous few days. And for teaching me the lyrics to the songs I’ve been half-hearing for months (in some cases years). And for about a week after leaving NZ, I had “oh Jonny Bairstow, you are the love of my life” (to the tune of I love you, baby, and if it’s quite alright…” going round and round and round my head. Even typing this is enough to set it off again… it’s a good thing I do quite like Jonny.

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!

The Ashes – the last rites

So that’s that then. England outgunned and outclassed, and defeated 4-0. I’ll leave the post-mortem to the many excellent cricket journalists of the world (Mike Atherton being my personal favourite – you can read many of his Ashes columns without the Times paywall on The Australian website), but I had to share the fabulous photo from my seat close to the back of the Victor Trumper stand!

I went to Days 2, 3 and 5. The former two I had tickets for thanks to my cousin, had family days out with her, her husband and my aunt / her mum, and enjoyed superb (if very expensive) seats up high behind the bowler’s arm. And, critically given the recent heatwave, in the shade all day. I enjoyed being there for Jane McGrath day, where spectators are encouraged to wear pink and donate to the breast cancer charity set up in memory of the late wife of the great Australian bowler, Glenn. The sight of swathes of the ground wearing pink (and the commentary teams in hideous pink suits) was quite a spectacle, some advertisers had special pink boards, and the Ladies’ Pavilion was renamed the Jane McGrath pavilion with a bright pink sign. Most importantly, over $1.3 million was raised during the game for a cause close to my heart.

I skipped Day 4 on the basis that the match position, weather forecast (43 degrees!!) and ticket price ($149 for a seat in the shade) and distance I was staying from central Sydney didn’t add up. But Day 5 was a case of “why not?”. I had a day with no concrete plans, admission was by “gold coin donation” ($1/$2) to sit anywhere, a recently-made friend was going, and, having seen ten of the previous 24 days of the series, it felt apt to be there for the last rites. England lasted well past lunch, which beat my expectations, and I had a very pleasant half day chatting with a backdrop of cricket. And ten minutes after close of play they let us onto the pitch, which was rather fun too.

I’ve been to the SCG before, but not not for eleven years. Glenn McGrath is clearly biased when he says it’s the best ground in the world, but I can see the case. It’s a big stadium – capacity of around 50,000 after its most recent redevelopment – but retains a far more traditional cricket ground feel than Melbourne, especially as the old pavilion has been left largely unchanged. And that view is hard to beat…

No such thing as too much cricket!

The Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG, or indeed just the “G” to Melburnians) is on many cricket fans’ bucket lists. I’m extremely fortunate in that this was the second time I’ve attended the game in an Ashes series. Despite a lifeless pitch, suffice to say that this year’s experience has been infinitely superior to its 2006 equivalent.

In both cases, England entered the series 3-0 down. In 2006, England were rolled by an innings and 99 runs within three days, and I spent what would have been Day Four getting hideously sunburnt on St Kilda Beach. This time, however, England gave us plenty to cheer about. Indeed, until the middle of today’s afternoon session, we had a decent chance of winning the game. However, in the end, a combination of rain, the dead pitch and Australia’s extraordinary, immovable captain, Steve Smith, conspired to give the Aussies a draw. I’ve also enjoyed staying in a friend’s house, not a hostel, and being able to afford to partake in Melbourne’s excellent foodie scene and coffee culture.

I skipped Day One of the test, as I was in transit from Auckland, and it doesn’t sound like I missed much after David Warner got out for an eventful 103. On the second morning, things got interesting, with Australia collapsing from 244/3 to 327 all out, thanks in no small part to Stuart Broad rediscovering his bowling mojo. Finally the Barmy Army’s chant of “He’s big, he’s bad, he’s better than his dad” was believable again! Then it was the turn of another senior player in the spotlight, Alastair Cook, to do his thing. Over the course of the following ten-and-a-half hours of play, he took his series runs from 83 to 327, and career tally to a stonking 11,956, by racking up his 32nd century and fifth double-century. Quite a turnaround, and remarkably (and this says a lot about the rest of our batting line-up…) he now topping the series list for England. Class is permanent and all that. When the match petered out to a draw this afternoon, nobody can have been surprised at the man of the match selection, and it was a privilege to have been in the ground for every ball of a great innings.

So what’s special about the “G”? It isn’t an easy question, though hard to look beyond the sheer size of the place. The view from the fourth tier is quite something! There were nearly 90,000 in on Boxing Day and not far shy of 70,000 the following day, approximately twice what I’ve ever seen at any other ground. With that comes atmosphere, of course. I remember finding it quite an intimidating place to watch cricket during a 2007 one-dayer with anti-Pom abuse flying, but this time I found the locals knowledgeable about their cricket, and respectful. The Ritchies (around a hundred blokes dressed as Ritchie Benaud, sitting in the sun in 36-degree heat) provided some entertainment on Day Two, complete with three-part trumpet harmony, no doubt an attempt to trump the English Barmy Army. But the whole crowd rose to applaud Alastair Cook’s hundred and then the double-ton the following day. It’s not a cricket ground in the purist sense, but it’s one hell of a stadium. That said, it felt pretty empty today on Day Five when there were “only” 14,000 people in!

Of those, I reckon the vast majority were English, mostly sitting together at the Great Southern Stand End. I chose a seat today at that end, right above the Barmy Army – a safe distance, but close enough to feel part of the atmosphere. Love them or loathe them, they are part of touring with England, and were in full voice for much of the last four days, often garnering applause and encouragement from the team. Indeed, after the presentation this afternoon, all eleven players ran across from the other side of the ground to show their appreciation, and then Jonny Bairstow came back to give his pads to a young fan in the front row.

To provide a comparison, and because I don’t believe there’s such thing as too much cricket, last night I went to my first Big Bash League (BBL) Twenty20 game at the Etihad Stadium across town. Definitely an occasion to leave the “cricket purist” hat at home, but a lot of fun. And, on a rainy evening, a great joy (and surprise) to discover the stadium has a roof so my concerns about losing the game to the weather were unfounded! Much to the disappointment of the partisan home crowd, the Perth Scorchers were too good for the Melbourne Renegades, thanks largely to Mitchell Johnson, and I find it hard to see past the Scorchers as potential winners of the tournament. The BBL is doing a lot right – I’ll post more on it once I’ve seen another game in Sydney in a couple of weeks.

The England team now moves on to Sydney, and so do I – after two more nights in Melbourne. I’ve heard very good things about the New Year’s Eve fireworks here and so will certainly head into town late-ish in the evening, but don’t plan to rush around seeing things earlier in the day – one of the joys of revisiting a place I’ve been to a few times before is feeling no compunction to do the touristy stuff!

Lovely city, fantastic ground, some great cricket… shame about the result!

Given the name of this blog, I thought it was about time I wrote about transport, Australian confectionery or cricket! I’ll start with the third and maybe work backwards…

I’ve spent the last three days at days 2-4 of the Ashes test at the Adelaide Oval. The alignment of the timing of my move and the Ashes wasn’t coincidental and I’m also going to parts of the Melbourne and Sydney games in a few weeks’ time. Everything about Adelaide was fantastic, apart from the performance of the England team for over half of the match!

I first visited Adelaide in March, on holiday with my parents, and my impressions then were very good. It’s much smaller than Sydney and Melbourne and has the sarky nickname “Radelaide”. Even if not exactly “rad”, I’ve found it to be pretty, very walkable, and very green. The Oval overlooks the Torrens river, with a pedestrian bridge linking it to the main part of the city on the south side. Fans streaming across the bridge to and from the game was a sight to behold, and the atmosphere began before entering the stadium itself. The ground has been extended in recent years so now seats 55,000, but the wonderful old manual scorebox is still there – and most of the time was quicker and more accurate than the score on the big screen next to it! I did the stadium tour back in March and getting to go in the box (and have my photo taken in there) was one of the highlights of my holiday… yes, I’m an unashamed cricket and scoring tragic! As a purist, I’m still not sure about day-night test cricket, but as a spectator it was a fabulous spectacle – and the sunset at the ground last night as England were going nicely with the bat was something else.

The cricket itself, well… I nearly had hope, which is more than I expected at the end of day 2! England had three or four excellent sessions and Jimmy Anderson was immense in the second innings – and the atmosphere then was particularly fun, with the Barmy Army finding its voice and taunting every Australian mistake – but after conceding a 215 run lead in the first innings they were always going to be playing catch-up. The end was a bit of a damp squib this afternoon – I’m glad I didn’t cancel plans I’d already made in order to be there! I can’t help feeling that the English players aren’t much, if at all, lower calibre than their Australian counterparts, but (with a couple of exceptions in the last couple of days) they really haven’t applied themselves at all well. The series is surely lost now – they’ll need to raise their game in Perth to save any face at all.

As for me, I’m not going to Perth despite a desire to see the WACA before it is retired – given I’ll be spending Christmas in NZ, it’s a four hour flight in the wrong direction! I’m now down the coast from Adelaide in McLaren Vale (in a campervan) ready to do some wine tasting tomorrow and then head to Kangaroo Island on Friday morning. More on that to follow soon, I’m sure…