July 18, 2003

At Darwin, VIPs come in various sizes

Roving Reporter by­ Steven Lynch

The Marrara Oval, Darwin

Test cricket came to Australia's Top End today, when Steve Waugh won the toss and put Bangladesh in to bat on the drop-in pitch at the Marrara Oval, a cosy oasis of green in the dry old Northern Territory.

It's normally an Australian Rules football stadium, with cavernous dressing-rooms beneath the big concrete grandstand. Notices on the walls beseech players not to spit (or worse) on the floors.

After a quiet start it was business as usual for Bangladesh, who lost wickets in clumps after being put in. Punters with money on at 14/1 that the match would be all over inside a day are going to be disappointed, but the local TV station, which is only broadcasting the fourth and fifth days live, must already be looking out a few more repeats of Neighbours or Home and Away.

There were extra-loud cheers for Jason Gillespie, especially when he struck to remove Javed Omar and start a slide in which four wickets tumbled for 14 runs. Gillespie, you see, is part-Aboriginal, and up here in NT the indigenous Australian peoples make up 30% of the population, compared with around 2% in the country as a whole.

Gillespie is proud of his Aboriginal heritage and has traced his forebears back to the Kamilaroi tribe. "I'm an interesting mix because I've got Aboriginal blood and on my Mum's side it's mainly Greek," he said. "I was never really brought up as an indigenous person. But I've really started reading about it and where that my side of my family comes from."

In a country just coming to terms with the retirement of Olympic champion athlete Cathy Freeman, who was famous for brandishing the red-and-black Aboriginal flag on the track, does Gillespie see himself as a sporting ambassador? "I don't know how comfortable I'd be, to be honest ... technically I guess I'm the first [with Aboriginal blood], but I think there'd be a lot of former Test players with indigenous blood and just didn't know about it."

The ground at Marrara, near Darwin's airport, is in the town's sporting park. Bowling greens and clay-pigeon galleries jostle for position. But the cricket holds sway today - the authorities were expecting a crowd pushing the capacity of 11,500 -­ and that includes provision for a "Small VIPs Car Park". Next door, obviously catering for the more comfortably built, is the Large VIPs Car Park.

Among the larger VIPs for Darwin's big day was Clare Martin, the chief minister of the Northern Territory, who is a distant relative of Victor Trumper, one of Australia's early greats. And John Ah Kit, NT's minister for sport, was a genial presence in the grandstand, showing off one of the day's brighter shirts.

Over on Channel 9, one familiar face was missing. Richie Benaud, taking a break in France from commentating duties in England, was not there to don the off-white blazer for a home Test for the first time in most people's memories. Instead Simon O'Donnell, another former Test allrounder, took over the hot seat. But his "Morning everyone" just wasn't quite the same ...

Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.