ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
The weird and wonderful city that makes a hero out of a groundsman
As your plane see-saws into Wellington airport from the north, you will see a whopping great sign to your left, above what is known as the Miramar Cutting, a road that scythes through the hill. The sign normally says Wellington - and the T, the O and the N are stylistically being blown away by the capital city's notorious breeze.
The $80,000 sign has been tweaked for various events - including Vellington (to celebrate a quirky local vampire mockumentary) and Wowington (a hat tip to the city's incredible annual World of Wearable Arts exhibition). Brendon McCullum's name is nigh on impossible to work into the sign in a similarly tasteful way - Bazington? Wellingdon? - but it should be incorporated the next time he is in town.
A Dunedin boy, BB McCullum remains the toast of the capital after he became New Zealand Test cricket's first triple-centurion in February, plundering 302 from the hapless Indian bowlers at the Basin Reserve. His phenomenal effort flushed out every cricket fan in the city, and was the catalyst for a crackling atmosphere that will never be forgotten by everyone who cancelled meetings and orchestrated their lives to be there to witness it.
McCullum's stupendous recent knock helped the Kiwi capital city fall in love with cricket all over again.
It was good that it happened at the Basin, the spiritual home of proper cricket in New Zealand since 1866. It's a delectable little slice of eccentricity: Nowhere else in the world will you find an iconic Test cricket venue in the middle of a traffic roundabout.
However, it will be a lonely place during the World Cup - all the matches in the capital are at the Cake Tin (officially Westpac Stadium) - since the Basin has been ignominiously relegated to being a practice venue for visiting teams.
Cricket at the Cake Tin is different - this is a deliberately oval but soulless cricket ground, an explosion of 31,000 yellow seats at the end of a windswept concrete concourse only a few minutes' walk from the Wellington CBD and Parliament. It is also smack bang next to the main train station and within a Lance Klusener six of the place where international cruise ships dock.
Unlike the Basin, it has no grassy embankment, and there is very little cricket history lurking inside. As the tribute to All Black Tana Umaga in Aisle 13 (his jersey number) attests, this is first and foremost a rugby stadium that needs to pay the bills with things like cricket ODIs, Bon Jovi concerts and A-League football matches. It does work out okay, though. Just prepare for a numb bum, an unforgiving milieu of iron and concrete slabs, and a swirling breeze.
There have been some incredible matches played here, and the crowd can cut loose in a good way: none better than the December 2005 ODI between New Zealand and Australia. That evening we witnessed 642 runs, 15 wickets, a blistering ton and a half by Andrew Symonds, a spine-tingling run chase by New Zealand, a Brett Lee beamer, Mick Lewis' match-winning debut - and the irony of an Australian team whingeing about crowd behaviour. Australia won by two runs after the Kiwis face-planted at the last hurdle, having been 317 for 8 going into the final over needing six to win an extraordinary game.
Sparks flew in the post-match media conference too, as Ricky Ponting described the Wellington crowd as among "the most hostile in the world" (but presumably that would make it about the tenth-most hostile in Australasia). Ponting was accused of gamesmanship by eccentric New Zealand coach John Bracewell, who claimed that the Australians were mucking about to disrupt the rising tide of batting momentum created by Brendon McCullum's belligerent fly swats.
I'll never forget Man of the Match Glenn McGrath ripping into a security guard on the third-man boundary, right in front of us. Bizarrely, but entertainingly, McGrath would collect debris from the field and hand it to the guard. But the man in the high-viz vest drew the line when McGrath handed him a balloon. As the Australian bowler loped in from the fence with his back turned, the guard let the balloon go, and we roared our approval. This happened repeatedly before McGrath realised the guard was not on his side and was responsible for the balloon reappearing. He unloaded his thoughts directly to the guard, and found himself out of position as McCullum sliced another delivery for four through third man. Embarrassed and incensed, McGrath headed in to see Ponting and the match was paused: not because of boorish crowd behaviour but because of boorishly brilliant security guard behaviour.
Another moment etched in the Westpac Stadium memory vault was also against Australia, in 2007, when Shane Bond reeled in a one-handed screamer against Australia's Cameron White. The soundtrack mercilessly echoing around the venue was "Tainted Love", 1980s synth pop from Soft Cell, drowning out the chattering teeth of the crowd on that bone-chilling day. Bond's off-balance, diving caught-and-bowled effort was three millimetres above the clay, low to his right, and had umpire Billy Bowden cowering with fear behind the stumps at the bowler's end. White trudged off, gobsmacked.
Bond's 5 for 23 that day remains the best ODI bowling analysis at the Westpac Stadium ever, doing more than his fair share to inflict a merciless ten-wicket hiding on the men from across the ditch.
Over the past decade, the Wellington public has provided a fickle trickle of support for its local team. It has been a tough few years, and home-grown success stories are few and far between in these parts, with the exception of James Franklin and Jeetan Patel.
The mercurial Jesse Ryder (Hastings) was once a common sight in the Wellington black and gold - but that human headline has moved south to Otago. Other prominent local players in recent years have included Grant Elliott (Johannesburg) and Mark Gillespie (Wanganui). Dannevirke-born Luke Ronchi is likely to be the only Wellington player anywhere near the Black Caps during the Cricket World Cup.
But turning the clock back, the vaults contain many memories - and many of the Wellington stalwarts are still seen in bulging shirts and sensible pants around the city and at games, including:
- John "Mystery" Morrison (local government politician and rent-a-quote for anything cricket-related);
- Ewen Chatfield (aka "The Naenae Express" and now a cab driver often spotted at the Wellington Airport);
- Raconteur and man of letters Jeremy Coney (now doing thespian work in the UK);
- Bruce "Boots" Edgar (a complete banker, now a NZ selector);
- "Fadeaway" Evan Gray (who now runs the local social cricket team, Wanderers CC);
- Robert Vance (local menswear fashionista);
- Erv McSweeney (who used to run Cricket Wellington a few years back); and
- Gavin Larsen (now a World Cup operations guy).
If you're in town, keep an eye out - most of them will be happy for you to buy them a drink and reminisce about their days in the sun and the wind at the Basin Reserve.
Paul Ford is a co-founder of the Beige Brigade. @beigebrigadeFeeds: Paul Ford
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