July 26, 2003

A rum tale from the north

Australia's Top End Tour -­ the experiment of trying Test matches in the far north of the country in what is technically their winter ­- has moved on to Cairns, in far north Queensland and the main jumpoff for the Great Barrier Reef. The place has changed completely over the last dozen years or so, from a sleepy coastal port to a fully fledged tourist trap.

Cairns's Bundaberg Rum Oval has become the 90th ground to stage Test cricket ­ and the third in Queensland after Brisbane's Gabba and Exhibition grounds. No other state in Australia has had more than one, as any Queensland cricket-lover is very quick to inform you.

Cairns has only staged a couple of first-class matches before. John Crawley has painful memories of one of those games;­ during England's 1998-99 tour, he was set upon in town and beaten up. Bangladesh, crushed by an innings and 132 runs in the first Test in Darwin last week, must have felt rather like Crawley the morning after when they first clapped eyes on the ground here.

Three weeks of persistent rain had hindered the preparation, the pitch was greener than expected, and the practice nets were unusable. Brett Lee tried not to get too excited before the match, but couldn't resist saying: "I haven't really seen a nice fast green wicket for a while, but this looks [as] close to a greentop as possible." In the end, the pitch played much better than expected, and Bangladesh enjoyed one of their better days at the Test level as the pleas of Dav Whatmore, their Australian coach, for more patience began to sink in.

Cairns, encircled by the dark satanic hills of Australia's Great Dividing Range -­ not for nothing is it known as the place where the rainforest meets the reef ­- is bigger and brasher than Darwin, but the crowds were expected to be roughly the same. Early ticket sales for this spot of history were promising, but the first-day attendance of 5238 was a little disappointing. It included several busloads of schoolkids, whose shrill shrieks exhorting Lee to give 'em a wave enlivened the morning.

The ground, usually a football oval, has one big grandstand but is open on the other side, and if temperatures rise it might yet prove a trial for the press, who are bivouacked in an open tent at wide mid-on. Until the recent sponsorship deal with Bundy Rum was distilled, the place was known as Cazaly's Oval, after the local sporting legend Roy Cazaly, who is immortalised in the Australian Rules football anthem "Up There Cazaly" -­ the equivalent of baseball's "Take Me Out to the Old Ball Game" or the Premiership's latest dirty ditty about David and Victoria Beckham.

If there are any devils left in the pitch, they might do Bangladesh's captain Khaled Mahmud one favour. He trundles down low-slung medium-pacers which skid on to the batsmen a little. But before this match, he boasted the worst bowling average -­ 331.00 -­ of anyone who has ever played Test cricket. Three fours in his first over here didn't improve it much.

Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.