Australia, you beauty
Melbourne. Spent years dreaming of the MCG. Feel blank now. Long flight. Delays. Hours spent on runway in Singapore. Sleep-deprived.
Melbourne knows no pretence. Electric wires dangle in the open, old buildings don't wear new facades. Seems an old city. An approachable old city. Got to be quick with a one-liner.
Try to go to the MCG but not allowed. Haven't collected accreditation yet. "No go," says steward. Have heard Australia is the most regulated of cricket countries. Fear it might be true.
The MCG finally. Lovely bronze statues outside. Shane Warne the latest. Louis Laumen, the sculptor, knows what he is doing. Attention to detail shows best in statue of Bill Ponsford. The top hand coming off on the flick, the old sheer gloves. Then there are the bowling actions of Warne and Dennis Lillee. The hair of Keith Miller. The other sportsmen. Footie stars, athletes, they all form a beautiful inner circumference for the ground, the outer one being Yarra Park. Don Bradman the odd man out. Others seen in action, Bradman prosaically raising the bat. Others' descriptions talk of their qualities as cricketers, Bradman's of the number of runs he scored.
Read in a paper: "Trams are the cleverest mode of transport. To suggest otherwise you have to be mad. Or from Sydney. Or both." Melbourne trams are interesting. Convenient. Having paid no fares so far, read warnings of a fine of A$180 for fare-evaders. Ask co-passenger how much to pay for the MCG from Swanston Street. "Not worth paying for such a short trip." Oh well.
Australia and New Zealand the best at smart advertising. This at a drycleaner's: "Wanted: Wire coathangers. Last seen escaping from this business under a customer's clothing. Believed to be hiding in wardrobes and cupboards in the area. Please return. Reward: less mess around the house." Or this at a coffee shop: "You can sleep when you're dead."
Don't like the Melbourne weather? Walk five minutes. Golf-ball-sized hail at 7pm. Need sunglasses while having dinner at a quarter to nine.
Boxing Day. A crowd of more than 70,000 to watch Australia play India. Michael Clarke chooses to bat first in difficult conditions. The top order does okay, but Zaheer Khan pulls India back in his final spell of the day. MS Dhoni welcomes Brad Haddin, at 211 for 5, later 214 for 6, with a deep midwicket and a long-on. Prefers bowling sides out for 310 rather than conceding 360 in an attempt to dismiss them for 260.
Outside, impromptu games of cricket. Innovative equipment. Slippers are bats, pillars stumps.
Paul Kelly. Singer, songwriter, legspinner, Test cricket lover. Sang "Behind the Bowler's Arm", an improvisation on a Chinese proverb. Says everybody's days are numbered, but those spent watching cricket aren't counted. Especially those spent ten rows back at the MCG on Boxing Day, "right behind the bowler's arm". Doesn't like how Boxing Day has turned into a corporate blockbuster. Can still be seen on the second day, though, in the Great Southern Stand, ten rows behind the bowler's arm. Meet him later at a pub, the venue of his first gig in Melbourne. He can't believe how much the place has changed. Listens more than he talks. Traditionalist, but likes the element of drama that the DRS brings. Thinks Test cricket is a radio sport. Doesn't demand attention, but is there. Can dive in and out.
The day begins with a Ben Hilfenhaus corker to Rahul Dravid. Australia roar back into the contest. The Indian bowlers roar right back before Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey lead Australian fightback. Australia 230 ahead at stumps, two wickets in hand. Lovely final day set up.
The kiss cam is introduced to Test cricket. A lady flips the camera the bird during a drinks break. Later writes on her blog: "What they're actually doing when they home in on unsuspecting couples and associates alike, coercing them into kissing for kicks, is undermining Tendulkar's elegance with the bat, Sehwag's solid-footed theatrics, Hilfenhaus' resurgence with the ball and Siddle's terrifying aggression with the same. Cricket be damned, they're saying, let's watch people make out for no reason."
"Under the Southern Cross I stand / A sprig of wattle in hand / A native of my native land/ Australia, you f***** beauty".
Australia beat India by 122 runs. First against this opposition in the last nine attempts. India, at home, have been winning the big moments. Here Australia seize them. With late runs. With Sachin Tendulkar's wicket in the last over on day two. With Dravid's in the first over the next morning. With late runs again. A game of five days, won in five moments.
Moving celebrations out in the open after everybody else has left the ground about two hours after the finish. Not for the TV cameras. Huddle by the pitch. Ice box in the middle. One man on it. Loud cheers. Team-mates enjoying being together in a deserted MCG. Then the victory song, often sung indoors or after series wins. Shows how important the win is. Finally huddle breaks after about 20 minutes. Australia, you beauty.
A day off because of an early finish. Not a good idea. Cash traveller's cheque. Forget the rest at the counter. Get a call from Corinne - Western Australian, pleasant, talkative - who changed them.
"Did you lose something?"
"Your traveller's cheques…"
Rush back to counter. "I panicked. Thought I might have to come to Sydney to return those to you." Corinne, you beauty.
Melbourne stops you on the street and talks to you. Sydney mistakes you for a bum. Both must have their reasons.
New Year's eve. Millions of dollars' worth of fireworks go off at Sydney Harbour Bridge. Thousands and thousands gather as early as afternoon to secure vantage points. Almost like waiting for a rock concert to start. At half-past midnight, rush to find a bus back home.
Sydney a city of many small villages. All self-sufficient. All superbly connected by public transport. Busier and quicker than Melbourne.
Glenn McGrath. Promoting the Jane McGrath Foundation's cause. Pink polo shirt and formal trousers. Still stands with hands on his hips, as if an umpire has turned down an lbw appeal. Ask him why only batsmen get to lead the singing of "Under the Southern Cross". Says, "Batsmen have to do something. Bowlers do all the work in the game."
Subroto Banerjee. Former India medium-pacer. Debuted against West Indies in an ODI in Perth, in 1991. India tied after scoring just 126. Took three wickets. One of them Brian Lara's. "Lara maan," as Banerjee calls him. "Lara maan can change the game anytime, if he starts whacking. Whatever you do, get Lara maan out." Remembers the West Indies tail's resistance. Anderson Cummins in particular. After 40 overs all India's bowlers bowled out. One wicket still needed. Tendulkar goes to Mohammad Azharuddin: "Mere ko ley, main nikal deta hoon [Get me on, I'll get the wicket]". Tendulkar gets Cummins out on 24. Lovely low catch by Azhar at second slip. Says Banerjee: "Catches and Azzu… what a player. I would pay anything to watch him. I was at my peak - would be bowling beautiful outswing, and he would play it to midwicket. Somebody asked him how to tackle the offspinner. 'Offspinner, play through off. Legspinner, play through leg.'"
Dhoni chooses to bat on a green pitch. India bowled out for 191. Decision not overly criticised. Never seen any captain criticised for batting first. Considered brave when erring on the batting-first side. Cowards when fielding first, especially when captain is a batsman.
Finally break resolution to use only public transport. First time in an Australian taxi. Egyptian driver. Says everybody mistakes him for an Indian. Especially the Indians, who start talking in their language.
Australia 37 for 3 at one stage, 325 for 3 at another. Ray Flockton wouldn't have liked it. Played 35 games for New South Wales in the '50s and '60s. Worked as traffic cop too. Much-loved character around the SCG. Known for his humour. Won't see another SCG Test. Died on November 22 last year. Could never pronounce "th" properly. So 3 for 33 was "free for firty-free". The score, and variations, are called "Flockos" in Australia. In the first SCG Test after Flockton, Australia miss reaching Flocko by four runs, and then by eight.
Clarke and Michael Hussey continue to beat India into the dust. Crowd want a contest. Their radios provide them one. In the ABC commentary booth, Harsha Bhogle dares Kerry O'Keeffe to eat a chilli, which the latter turns down. Crowd turns around and gives him a slow clap. O'Keeffe notices, as do players out in the middle. O'Keeffe tells Bhogle that if Clarke were to get out then, he'd be the man to be blamed. Bhogle gets away with that: Clarke and Hussey keep pounding India. No contest.
Tendulkar, Dravid and VVS Laxman will never win a series in Australia or South Africa. Read this again and again. That's how it shall end. Feel bad for them.
Spot Virat Kohli signing autographs for Aussie kids an hour after the game is over. Flipped the bird a couple of days ago. The latter is on camera.
Newcastle. Three hours on the train from Sydney. Rick McCosker lives here. Batted with a broken jaw in the Centenary Test at the MCG. Is surprised everyone knows "Under the Southern Cross" now. "It was something sacred to us, apart from the language. It was something meant just for the 12 of us. The whole time I was playing, it was always done that way. It was never talked about outside. No one I knew knew what was actually happening. Only once did my wife overhear it."
Go to Fort Scratchley, among one of the breathtaking seaside places around. During the shelling of Newcastle in World War II by the Japanese submarine I-21, Australia retaliated, firing from Scratchley. No substantial damage caused. On Anzac Day now, shells are fired in memory.
Gosford. Somewhere between Newcastle and Sydney. Find self here after messing up train timings. Stranded for two hours at the station. From 2 to 4am. Creatures of the night around. Man believing he is a cop because he has a "top for cops" badge on his shirt. Another man says he can tell drug dealers by the way they walk and behave. Another swears at nobody. A fight on the other platform. Could well be at a Mumbai platform, waiting for the first morning train.
Australia is a fine country. Monetary fines for almost every conceivable insignificant offence. Feet up on the seat in a train? That'll be 100 bucks. Sitting in front of the stairway at Gosford train station? How about 200? Unauthorised parking? Twelve hundred. Step behind those black drapes on an airport carousel? That'll be $5000, thank you, sir.
Take a photo of the warning at Perth airport. Reported to police. By an alert and responsible citizen, no doubt. Longish interview to explain curiosity about fines. No fine for suspiciously taking photographs. Ultimate irony.
Run into Wasim Akram on a Perth street.
"Looking for food?" he asks.
"Oh, but I have always seen you at the food table at the grounds."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo