November 13, 2012

The Gabba boy

If you want to know what Brisbane's cricket culture is like, you've got to talk to Ian Healy

Chris Gayle takes the swagger of Kingston around the world, and Kevin Pietersen the swank of London. In Herschelle Gibbs there is always some Cape Town cool, and in Heath Streak a Bulawayo bullishness. Sometimes a city just seeps into a person.

It has happened to Ian Healy, although it's not as obvious. The former Australia wicketkeeper does not radiate like the Sunshine State, but he is Queensland to the core.

Healy was born in Brisbane, grew up just outside, and has lived in the city all his adult life. It is a place he would like to live in "forever" because of its connection to sport. "Brisbane is a strong sporting city - with rugby league, rugby union, Aussie rules, soccer is getting bigger, and cricket. We've got the best of every world," he said.

Healy first visited the Gabba as a six-year-old in 1970 - his only childhood trip to the stadium that would later become a second home. "I saw Keith Stackpole make 207 here against England," he remembered with a smile. "And I still remember it vividly."

By 17, Healy was "playing decent cricket" and his family moved from the small town of Biloela in central Queensland to the state capital. After five years in the grade competition, he made his first-class debut. The Gabba has been his backyard ever since and he still loves it, despite the many facelifts it has had in his time.

"It was a nice, atmospheric place with a greyhound track around it. For the big one-day internationals they'd sit people on the dog track. And they had a hill over on the western side, but sport seems to have to thrown up comfort now. It never used to be very comfortable to go and watch sport but we take it very seriously now, because it is big money and [there are] insurance issues. It was inevitable. It's pretty flash now but it's still a nice venue."

Healy played all his state cricket for Queensland and 11 Tests for Australia at the Gabba. Fittingly, it was also where he made his highest Test score, an unbeaten 161 against West Indies in 1996. He said it was not just that achievement but his overall experience of the ground that made it his favourite place to play cricket.

"It's the best ground to wicket-keep on by a mile, because the bounce is so consistent and it comes through waist high. It's also my favourite pitch, because there was a dilemma with the toss - on day five it was difficult to bat on. It was your traditional cricket wicket and offers something for everyone. Way too often in cricket nowadays, it becomes so obvious what you're going to do when you win the toss; the game follows a very predictable path and the wicket doesn't do enough deteriorating or it's not good enough upfront."

Although the Gabba did not live up to that reputation in the current Test against South Africa, there was uncertainty at the toss and both teams spent the build-up mulling the team make-up. Australia chose to include a spinner, while South Africa went in with an all-pace attack and a part-time spinner, JP Duminy, who was then ruled out of the match because of injury. The greentop faded fast, though, and flattened to leave the match set for a stalemate. It ended days of hype created around the pitch and the type of contest it would fuel, which is another reason why Healy has always enjoyed Brisbane Tests.

"There is a parochialism here and a smallness that does support things. Everyone seems to know everyone in a room of 400. Sometimes that can limit things but it's quite nice. I'd like to be here forever"

Being the venue for the first fixture of the summer, "the preparation and the speculation before make it a really special week to be in Brisbane". But being the venue where the international season kicks off is not always a good thing. Healy said the scheduling has resulted in "patchy" support from the Brisbane spectators, who aren't always enticed by the prospect of being the summer's first victims. "The administrators here want to keep the first Test, but quite regularly it's a low-profile Test. Last year, for example, we had New Zealand. Even though it turned out to be a good Test series, the thought doesn't really excite you. We're going to get lucky for the next three years, with the Ashes and then India, but every now and then we get a low-profile Test."

This year was different, because the Gabba hosted South Africa for a Test for the first time since the visitors' readmission into international cricket. Even so, the stadium wasn't full.

"I am not totally happy with the support of Brisbane for its cricket," Healy said. "The first-day crowd was 10,000 down on what it could be." Although the first day of the Test saw a record attendance for a non-Ashes match, it was not a sellout, and the numbers dwindled as the match went on and clouds hovered. "Brisbane is a good sporting town, but I think in cricket it can be a bit stronger," Healy said.

For that reason, he has taken on the chairmanship of the Bulls Masters, the association of former Queensland players. As a group, Healy and other cricketers like Matthew Hayden, Andy Bichel and Allan Border travel around the region to promote cricket and get involved in social projects. They helped raise money for victims of last year's Toowoomba floods, and also play in charity events. "We are doing our bit for cricket and developing cricket," Healy said. "It's a great concept with some great work, and our former players are very committed to it."

Part of the reason Healy still enjoys playing is because he is concerned about the lack of mentorship at club level and hopes to make a contribution. "Premier grade cricket in Brisbane is very young, as all our amateur cricket is. It doesn't retain old, hard heads anymore. The 33-year-olds are moving into their families and priorities have changed. But it is pretty vibrant."

One of the youngsters playing at that level is Healy's 16-year-old son Tom. "So I know what's going on in the structures and the quality is up there," Healy said. A promising wicketkeeper-batsman, Tom will find himself burdened by massive expectations and Healy is trying not to add to that.

"He is fairly good," Healy said. "But I don't care whether he plays for Australia or not. I just love watching him now. Wherever it gets to, it's good fun. I try not to coach him too much. Lots of good players don't have cricketing fathers, so your father doesn't really matter to your cricket career. If you don't have it, your father isn't going to get for you just by coaching you. We work together a lot but it's for the club to look after his cricket, not me."

Although Healy said he would have liked ti have raised his kids in the country, he is grateful for the opportunities Brisbane has afforded them. "I think country kids get a wider range of experiences than kids in a busier city. But Brisbane has got a nice balance. There is a parochialism here and a smallness that does support things. Everyone seems to know everyone in a room of 400. Sometimes that can limit things but it's quite nice. I'd like to be here forever."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent