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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • clint on November 14, 2012, 5:54 GMT

    maf17 i agree wholeheartedly to comments concering the afl wrecking traditional cricket grouds. surely they can play elsewhere.

  • Andrew on November 14, 2012, 2:36 GMT

    @Brett Amos - I witnessed several incidents where Police (doing their job), asked spectators to empty their bags because they had soft drinks. They probably suspected them of having spirits in the bottle. Paying $7.10 for XXXX in a plastic cup is pretty depressing! I saw a couple of evictions too, where the blokes kicked out were barely half as plonked as you'd see in the average Pub on a Friday night. A cricket club I had a bit to do with years ago, stopped going to the Gabba & choose now, to go to the SCG. @ dinosaurus on (November 13 2012, 10:50 AM GMT) - I enjoyed your post, although I agree with Elvis about the Gabba being spoiled by over policing + over pricing of food & drinks.

  • Matt on November 14, 2012, 1:56 GMT

    __PK, there are plenty of commentators with expert knowledge (Benaud, Atherton, Bishop) who make Healy look the parochial, one-eyed, biased cheerleader he is. And now they're getting Pigeon in the box, whose delivery on-air is like his deliveries on-pitch were for 15 years: monotonous, robotic, metronomic, impossible to tuck in to and inevitably fatal. God, is Channel 9 commentary in trouble.

  • Dummy4 on November 14, 2012, 0:46 GMT

    Ian Healy = Justin Marshall.

  • Dummy4 on November 14, 2012, 0:12 GMT

    I agree with @elvis_ We run a trip every year to the Gabba for our cricket club and have done for 15 years. This year was the last straw. Upon entry we were told that a police officer was going to be standing next to us the whole time just waiting for us to put a foot wrong and the he would be ejecting one by one as quick as he could. If you would like a real cricketing experience, spend the money and go to Adelaide. Patrons who wish to watch cricket AND have harmless fun are VERY welcome!!

  • Paul on November 13, 2012, 21:28 GMT

    Dr_Van_Nostrand, Healy has a better in-depth, player/coach-level technical knowledge of the game than anyone else in commentary boxes around the world. I mean, let's face it, anyone who watches a lot of cricket can develop decent opinions on how the game is going from a spectator point of view. But if you want to know EXACTLY why something happens the way it does on the cricket field, or what the players think about something, you need specialist knowledge and Healy's the man. Is he biased? Yes, probably, but in a positive way. There's a big difference between being overly optimistic of your own preferred side, which is only human, and being overly criticial of other sides, which is just being a jerk - plenty of those in media boxes around the world.

  • Dummy4 on November 13, 2012, 19:38 GMT

    I'm not sure about your sense of geography. Biloela is not 'just outside' Brisbane.

  • Michael on November 13, 2012, 11:35 GMT

    I have lived in Brisbane most of my life, and the current incarnation of the Gabba is a soulless monstrosity, thanks to the AFL. And now the AFL is doing the same atrocity to the Adelaide Oval. There's also the drop-in pitches that have turned our best wickets into boring cookie-cutter nothings. The AFL has done more damage to the history and culture of grounds belonging to other sports than any other sport. They seem to believe they have a god-given right to stuff up the facilities for other sports, all in the name of a game that has zero interest internationally and cant even capture the entire market for its own country

  • Murray on November 13, 2012, 11:01 GMT

    Hiya Heals !!!! :)))) ........ how was that runout when Stackie was 18 or so ? ...... I gave him out from the members stand (easily - must have been at least a yard out lol). That sort of innings can't happen today ! When I was 10 and at "Churchie", being from Annerley, it was not just the tram change. A great afternoon when no cricket practice. We'd watch the last session of "Shield" games. Paul Sheehan was my hero (shhhhh of course it was Burgie and Peter Allen ;) ) The way he (Sheehan) fielded was pure magic to my young eyes !!!! After stumps we'd play on the field against the fence. Hope Ian actually somehow reads this... great story that brings back so many memories for this Archer. ... Dead right about the coaching! I never knew about them till playing a rep game at 12 and doing well (opponents sure told me lol) PS the way Ian kept wickets is pure magic in my memory while my eyes wonder why No-one in the world anymore can actually keep. "Deafie" Wally, Macca and Heals. WOW !

  • John on November 13, 2012, 10:50 GMT

    I certainly don't share the views of elvis (neither in music nor in judgement of the Gabba). Many old-timers like me remember the old-style cricket grounds (not just the Gabba) with some affection. In fact, my memories of the ground precede the "dog track" by a considerable interval. I can remember taking my wife to the cricket before we were married, 50 years ago. We sat under the shade of the Moreton Bay Fig trees on the hill (on the *eastern* side of the ground). In that regard the Sydney Cricket Ground trust have earned respect for preserving the old Members' and Ladies' stands. We went to the Big Bash match with our son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren and had a really good evening. My son and son-in-law invited me to one day of the most recent Ashes test too. By chance it was the Hussey - Haddin partnership that we saw. That, too, was a very enjoyable experience. Going back, my brother, brother-in-law and myself did in fact see the end of the famous tied test. Happy memories!

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