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But rugby and the Olympics are what everybody's taking about in Australia
August 13, 2012
Changi airport. Singapore. Four gargantuan television screens are arranged in a square. The couches in front of three are virtually empty. Those in front of the fourth are full, with a crowd behind waiting for the potatoes to budge. Few do. That television is showing the Olympics. Some passengers are wearing Team Great Britain tees and carrying similar bags. They gape as Lawrence Okoye's first throw of the discus is a shambles; they cheer when his third is more than 65 metres. Lots of Australian accents are heard, but no Team Australia clothing to be seen. Not much to cheer about, says a half-Aussie lady on the flight. She's also half-Kiwi. Three gold medals to Australia's two.
Brisbane International Airport. Sniffed by a labrador searching for drugs. Sniffed by a beagle ferreting out bio-stuff: foreign food and the like. Think someone's M&Ms are smelt out. Australia is careful about what enters its island borders. "Have you been in a freshwater body in a foreign land in the recent past", they ask, to safeguard their aquatic ecosystem. It makes sense. There were once few rabbits in Australia, until one Thomas Austin introduced 12 pairs on his Victoria farm because he liked to hunt. Their descendants have cost the country's agriculture millions.
My first time in the southern hemisphere. Keep eyes peeled for the Coriolis effect. The Brisbane sky is an uninterrupted blue from horizon to horizon. Light from the 8am sun drapes everything in gold. Queensland is the sunshine state. The half-moon is visible too.
Few people in Brisbane know their state is hosting the Under-19 World Cup. Fewer at the University of Queensland know South Africa and New Zealand are playing a warm-up in their backyard - at the WEP Harris Oval.
One South African batsman is told by match referee David Boon that a sticker on the back of his bat has to be removed. Boy scurries away when Ray Jennings and Boon begin quipping about fines.
Chat with dreadlocked Cam Neyens, brother of New Zealand allrounder Connor. Cam says the cost of Australia's medals in London is an eye-popping $10 million each. Is national pride worth the investment? See students cycling, running, rowing and playing various sports around campus. Makes it worth it, I think.
Look at road signs through jet-lagged eyes while traversing the city to find tiny grounds at which the U-19s are playing practice matches: Wynnum Road, Tingalpa, Seven Hills, Coorparoo, Vulture Street. Bell rings. Vulture Street End. Spot the Gabbatoir. Wonder if there's a tour, but it will have to wait.
Former batsman Stuart Williams is part of the West Indian management team. He played a part in one of my favourite one-dayers: leaping on the square-leg boundary to intercept what would have been a winning six from Hashan Tillakaratne. Smiles as he remembers the game. It's always underrated when listing great ODIs.
West Indies coach Roddy Estwick yells. Sounds like he wants the wicketkeeper to wear a helmet if he's standing up to the medium-pacer. Wicketkeeper drops back several yards instead. A couple of balls later, the bails fly as the Namibian batsman is bowled.
Take the City Cat, a catamaran ferry on the Brisbane River. Along its banks, houses give way to apartments that give way to skyscrapers in the City. Glorious sunset on the water. During the walk from New Farm jetty to the guesthouse, spot a couple of "Have your say" signs that propose replacing parkland with construction. Wonder what the residents want.
The papers are filled with stories and photos of Queensland's golden girls. Overnight, hurdler Sally Pearson and track cyclist Anna Meares have taken Australia's gold-medal count in London to five. Pearson moved from Sydney to the Gold Coast when she was eight and did all her training there. Meares was born in the mining town of Blackwater, which, in the last census, had a population of just over 5000. Few people are talking about them, though. Not on the bus, not in cafés, and not on the streets. Suspect the overall disappointment at the Olympics is overwhelming the success coming through in the latter half of the Games. Haven't seen the U-19 World Cup in the papers yet.
Leave Brisbane before an impression of the city is formed. Not experienced it enough, apart from using the public transport extensively and seeing cricket fields and quaint Queenslander houses - wooden, pastel-coloured, with plants all around. Leave the city as I arrived, on a cloudless early morning. See lots of cyclists riding the sloping, wide and smooth roads. Like it a little more now.
Townsville is smaller. Very few multi-storey buildings. More backpackers, travelling the Queensland coast and through the bush. More indigenous Australians; can't remember noticing any in Brisbane. More advertisements for scuba-diving, snorkelling and walks through the rainforest. More warnings about creatures that can cause grievous bodily harm to the careless.
Day one of the World Cup. Four-dollar bus ride to the Tony Ireland Stadium in Thuringowa, on the outskirts of Townsville. The ground is big and beautiful, circled by grass banks, trees and hills. The pitch is quick too. Daniel Bell-Drummond hugs his dad after making a duck; Reece Topley breaks a middle stump. Notice how effortlessly the Australia and England players are fielding in tandem at such a young age. Get locked inside the stadium and miss the last bus back to the city after staying too late in the press area. Cab driver comes to the rescue. Tells of how he drove Andrew Symonds from the airport to his house in the city. Apparently Symonds has a crew-cut now and wants to go fishing on the reef on Thursday. Ride costs $50.
There is no bus from the city that reaches Thuringowa before 9am on a Sunday. The first one gets there 11 minutes past the hour, after the India-West Indies toss. Most people on the bus are talking about how the Cowboys thrashed the Warriors 52-12 last night. Rugby League. Everyone wants to talk about it.
One lady asks to be let off the bus where there's no stop. Driver obliges. Soon after, a young man asks for the same favour. "She was going to church," the driver says. "What's your reason?" Man says he's going to work. Driver stops again. Last bus back to the city is at 5pm on a Sunday. Don't attempt to catch it. Have been assured the transport is better during the week.
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