University Oval utopia
A few mates and I just got back from cricketing heaven and hell on the banks of Logan Park in Dunedin.
It's a magnificent spot for Test cricket, small but perfectly formed, and furnished with the fundamental requirement for Test cricket in Aotearoa: an almost all-encompassing grass embankment. (I often hear people describe the Oval as "intimate", but I don't know why, as it certainly didn't seem familiar, private or personal.)
Nestled between rows of tall trees, beneath a quarry and in the shadow of the fantastic Forsyth Barr Stadium: I can understand why Ross Dykes raves about this place. Not that it's an easy spot to get to.
Having been pillaged for hundreds of dollars on the flight-booking front, one of our platoons was struck by lightning en route from Auckland, and my flight from Wellington erupted in a chorus of boos as the pilot announced that fog around Momona International Airport could see us diverted to Invercargill. After a $90 cab ride in from the airport and $45 to get inside, expectations were high.
Fortunately there were many heavenly parts of our visit to the land of southern men.
We were speaking with the security team at the front gate, having meandered down the tree-lined avenue at the entrance to the ground. "Aren't you allowed to bring booze in?" Jeremy asked the security guard. "Not really," said the pragmatic chap searching bags. "But you do pay a lot for drinks in there, so we're not going to be stupid about it." High-fives all round.
There was a bloke called Noumea selling an unusual delicacy at the far end of the ground: "Home of the world famous pineapple bread" it said on the side of his trailer. It was nice too, and the swarm of plump kids around the caravan indicated it was a pretty popular dietary choice.
On Friday we hunted some shade as the mercury in this little slice of southern paradise ticked past 20 degrees Celsius, and found ourselves nestled in a shady hedge, where chief groundsman Tom Tamati and his band of eerily similar-looking cohorts were settling in with their Vegemite sandwiches.
The old blokes nearby regaled us with the controversial story of the slicing and relocation of the former art gallery, built for the 1925 New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition, in order to keep the ICC happy and stop cricketers like Daniel Vettori criticising the ground's set-up as farcical.
The news of Nelson Mandela's death reverberated around the ground. The minute's silence after lunch was a nice touch from NZ Cricket, and the respectful hush for Madiba was only punctured by a little kid who had a few questions for his mum.
In the crowd there was an eclectic mix of families, a chap who looked like Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, talented school kids with cricket bats, a guy with an umbrella taped to his back, and hardcore fans in fold-out deckchairs. It was nice to see a pleasing smattering of men in beige, but my player of the day was the old chap who was not partaking in the free sunscreen being dispensed willy-nilly around the ground. Instead he elected to fold a mini paper dart and held it on the bridge of his nose with his spectacles like it was the most normal thing ever.
We chatted to a couple of cops under the beer tent. One was a Kiwi, one was from Bradford. "Is it a short straw or a good gig to be stationed at the cricket today, mate?" I asked. "What do you think?" the Yorkshireman retorted. "Who'd want to be dressed up in this while all around are Kiwis drinking pints?"
The cricket was pretty good too: a brace of double-centuries and a performance to be proud of from our New Zealand team. Neil Wagner is an absolute beast on the effort front, and in Tino Best, West Indies have a bowler who is a treat to watch as he thunders in and forces false strokes most overs.
In the aftermath of the rained-out last session, there have been plenty of people wise after the fact. These people wouldn't have enforced the follow-on, would have batted quicker, would have had a rain radar in their helmet, would have got West Indies out faster - that sort of thing. That's all a bit convenient and downplays the flatness of the deck and the resilience of the Windies batsmen. The win just wasn't meant to be.
On the hell side, the list is much shorter. After four and a half days of - according to one local at least - unprecedented awesomeness on the weather front, it all unravelled on Saturday afternoon as the clouds exploded and the game followed suit.
The hellephant arrived in the room on Thursday morning in the form of the New Zealand Herald story about allegations and investigations into match-fixing focused on three former New Zealand players. Dylan Cleaver is an accomplished journalist and an astute friend of the game, so the story delivered more sting. The allegations cast a foggy pall over the University Oval.
Hopefully this state of perplexity dissipates by the time we hit the banks at the Basin Reserve in another preposterously timed midweek Test. That may be wishful thinking.
Paul Ford is a co-founder of the Beige Brigade. He tweets here