July 27, 2003

A winter's tale

As if playing cricket in the winter wasn't weird enough, there have been some strange sights around the Bundaberg Rum Stadium in Cairns over the past few days.

On the first day, we had Bangladesh batting sensibly, which hadn't often been the case in their 20 previous Tests. And on the second they bowled tightly to start with, before Darren Lehmann and Steve Waugh, in their contrasting styles, stopped the rot and reasserted Australia's expected supremacy. You can tell that Waugh is batting well when no-one dares to ask him whether he thinks he really ought to retire.

But the peripheral sights have been worth watching too. Perhaps the most surreal came at tea, when the maroon-jacketed marching band belted out "Wipe Out", a drum-based hit for the Surfaris in the early '60s. While the crowd was absorbing this, the boys quick-stepped into Tina Turner's "Simply the Best".

The star of the lunchtime Kwik Cricket matches (or Kanga Cricket as it's called here) has been KangaMan, an actor in what must be a horrendously hot suit who interrupts the games to have a bowl or, slightly handicapped by the fact that he can't see properly through the kanga's kapok-stuffed head, a rather brief bat.

Aussie kids, hardened from an early age by TV shows featuring blokes in huge animal costumes like Humphrey B Bear and Fat Cat - not to mention the nightmare-inducing Bananas in Pyjamas - treat this interloper as an old friend. The crowd, however, barrack KangaMan unmercifully as yet another seven-year-old smacks his wrong'un over the fence.

Elsewhere the adults seem slightly underwhelmed by Cairns's Test debut. Cazaly's Club, which adjoins the ground, does a roaring trade in meals and drinks, but a lot of those are for people who arrive after the cricket's over, for what seems to be a regular weekly treat.

In the town itself, a haven for backpackers and surfers, the cricket doesn't seem to have registered overmuch, although the bars were packed out on successive evenings for Australia's clashes with New Zealand in rugby league (the Aussies romped home, sparking noisy celebrations) and union (the All Blacks won easily, ruining everyone's night). But during the day those visitors are flocking to the Barrier Reef, or the nearby rainforest. Only the diehards are going to the cricket, and the attendances, both here and for the first Test in Darwin, have been slightly disappointing.

That's a shame, for the cricket has been interesting throughout, and the organisation and facilities top-class. There aren't many Test grounds left where you can wander all the way round without having to produce a fistful of passes - so once the kids have stopped baiting KangaMan there's nothing to stop them lining up at the end of play for autographs as the players warm down.

But it is early days for winter cricket in Australia (winter is a bit of a misnomer actually, as the weather at this time of year in the Top End is superb), and it will be interesting to see how it fares next July, when Sri Lanka will provide rather stronger opposition.

Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.

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